I recently read a bold statement that “stigma against mental illness is worse than the disease itself”.
I strongly disagree with this, but I know it makes it much, much worse. I know this because I’ve suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since I was a young child, and anybody who has this disease knows it’s closely linked with extreme anxiety, and when left untreated, can spiral into a debilitating depression.
I have to manage this disease daily, with a handful of pills both morning and night, accompanied by bi-monthly visits to a cognitive behavioural therapist.
So why am I telling you this? I’m telling you because I’m not ashamed.
Compared to others with much more severe forms of mental illness, I might even be considered lucky. But more importantly, if I had type 1 diabetes or hereditary heart disease, nobody would expect me to be ashamed in the first place. Why should I hide something I was born with?
Originally from Los Angeles (where I concede that perhaps too many rely on therapists and easily-obtained anxiety meds), I was shocked when an Oxford colleague told me that somebody taking prescriptions for their mental health or visiting a psychotherapist is a sign that something is seriously wrong with them. Generally, I wouldn’t care, because, again — I’m not ashamed.
But when I sold my belongings, left my friends, family, and partner back in the States, and hopped across the pond for a job, it was particularly important that people understood I might not feel 100 per cent at all times.
Not surprisingly, all of my anxiety symptoms flooded back within two months of being here, and I felt myself spiralling. Just when I needed encouragement from friends the most, all of mine were a seven-hour time difference away.
What’s worse is that when you’re not part of a college, Oxford can be a cold and unwelcoming place — so much so that I had to create my own club to make friends once I got so fed up with my loneliness.
Luckily, I am not the only one who likes to knit in a pub, because the Oxford Drunken Knitwits were an instant success. But success with the NHS?
Not only did they tell me my particular cocktail of meds was “something they do in the US”, but also that one medication would be completely unobtainable here (“it’s not used for that in the UK”).
While I realise the NHS isn’t known for its creativity, I was nonetheless astonished at the blatant lag in acceptance of novel mental health solutions. That being said, Oxfordshire Mind, Restore, and many other local and national groups are devoted to promoting awareness and helping those suffering from mental health problems, and many individuals have opened up to me when I’ve told them about mine.
Everybody has a state of mental health, and only when talking about it becomes the norm will progress be made. How do we get the NHS to catch up?
That’s a different can of worms…