Thursday, 16 November 2017

When being a mental health activist gets hard

The first year after my diagnosis with depression was hard. I had expected a quick-fix, but it was six months and five different drugs later and I still didn’t want to live. I struggled to get by day-to-day. I continued to withdraw and lost friends. I acted out self-destructively. I felt lost, and what I needed was to find a purpose for my depression.

I found meaning in mental health campaigns and activism. I got involved in local college groups that promoted the message “Talking is a sign of strength.” It was an easy thing to throw my weight behind – talking had literally saved my life. And I never wanted anyone to feel as alone and without help as I had.

We ran awareness campaigns of the supports available to students, hosted talks on eating disorders and CBT and tried to reach those who needed help. We held regular tea and coffee mornings to promote talking. And people would talk. I’d be taken aside to chat to someone vulnerable. To tell them that it’s okay not to feel okay, but sometimes we need help. They’d tell me about their battles, their hardships, their attempts.

And I was ever so grateful, don’t get me wrong. How much I would have loved to have someone listen to me and chat to me about my illness after my diagnosis. I had needed like-minded people with their experiences of mental illness to talk to. And that’s what I’d found through activism.
 But I went home feeling these people’s pain. Often their stories were triggering to me. It brought me back to exactly how I’d felt and how I'd hurt. And when we lost a life, I took that personally. “If only my activism had reached them”, I’d think. “If I’d done more, could I have saved them?”

My activism found a national stage through the Green Ribbon campaign. I was interviewed in national newspapers and on TV. People I didn’t know, people I used to know reached out to me to say they could relate. They’d been through something similar. They had lost a friend to a similar battle.

But then the questions started:
What medication are you on? What brand works for you?
When are you going to stop taking medication? Aren’t you worried you’ll get addicted?
But how serious actually was your depression?
Don't you think you should go back to counselling? 
When I left university and entered the workplace, I lost contact with like-minded people. I have always been the youngest person on my team in any place I’ve worked over the past three years. I quickly became aware of how much stigma still exists. I didn’t know how to react to office lunchtime conversations, or even if I should react?
 “There’s definitely something mentally wrong with him.” 
"Terrorists are all mentally ill. There's no other excuse." 
"I always thought depression wasn't real; it's just something in your head."
If I speak up I’ll probably get upset. How will people treat me if I do admit that I have depression?

I started my blog. I started sharing more indepth the daily struggles of depression and anxiety. I joined mental health chats on Twitter and met more like-minded activists through the Internet. But when life got in the way and I started to miss those chats, when I couldn't keep up or commit my time, I lost a lot of support.

You start to become the 'mental health' person in your social groups. Someone uses the word 'mental' or 'depressing' in a conversation and all eyes turn to you to see how you're going to react.

I remember when my boyfriend and I first started dating. We had mutual friends in common and I was fearful that someone may have already told him about my mental illness before I was ready to myself (they did). I was scared he’d find my blog; an open chronicle of seven years of mental illness. I had made myself open and vulnerable by being so public.

It came up on our second date. He told me a friend had already mentioned the blog to him. I looked down at the table and tugged at my sleeves as I explained my mental illness to him. I wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. But thanks to my activism, I was forced to.

You make yourself vulnerable when you speak up about your mental health. Some days you get support and feel empowered.

Other times it feels like you’re constantly being attacked. Sometimes even media articles feel like a personal attack. They tell you not to take it personally, but it is personal. After years of relentlessly defending yourself, your own choices, your approach to activism and raising awareness, heck of even defending the fact that mental illness exists, you get exhausted. And I am tired. I am not always strong enough to be 'active'. Some days I have to put my own mental health first.
Some days are turning into most days.

Just like how I had hoped for a quick fix to my own mental illness, I thought there might be a quick fix to the stigma. I thought my activism would change things. But after fighting for so long, most of the time it feels like I haven't changed a thing.

As hard as it gets, as tired as it gets, you try to keep going. You don't want to give up, because there's a fight still ongoing. But boy is it draining. And one day there will a come a day when my own mental health will have to come first.

Until next time,

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