On World Mental Health yesterday my feed was full of posts about how it’s ok not to be ok. Although it might not be the best sample, after all I curate my own feed, there’s the sense that mental health is being talked about more. Women’s Health, a magazine with a circulation of more than 130,000, has a whole month devoted to the issue, and brands are increasingly jumping on the bandwagon (or posting rhetoric at opportune moments). This is all great. I am genuinely pleased mental health is becoming something people talk about, and to be honest if it wasn’t for this environment I probably wouldn’t be as open as I am. However, what if it’s not as good as it seems?
Chatting to friends off the back of World Mental Health Day there was a sense of frustration. Some expressed the feeling they’d been reduced to a statistic, a 1 in 4, and concerns were voiced that our, often traumatising, conditions were somehow being glamourised, cooped by anyone with an Instagram account and an agenda. Another hashtag. Hattie Gladwell wrote an article last year about her frustration around mental illness being portrayed as ‘quirky’ and her concerns that people may not understand the seriousness of these disorders. That this may give the impression that mental illness is something that can be controlled through simple steps - going for a run, meditating, drinking more water (these things help, but they don’t solve the problem). An impression that is damaging to people who don’t understand mental illness. There was the concern that white anxiety has resulted in people were supportive around mental health to a point, but as soon as things get uncomfortable that support vanished.
My own experiences mirror these frustrations. Being told that the most interesting people always have mental health conditions, yet when I have a crisis that I need to walk into the fire, toughen up, stop sulking. There’s the sense that sometimes you have to have the right sort of mental health issues. Nothing too serious. Nothing that manifests itself in an ugly way. You can be ‘quirky’ but god forbid if things get ugly. And that’s the thing, mental illness is ugly. OCD isn’t about cleaning, it’s dark intrusive thoughts that leave you traumatised and consume every part of you. Anxiety isn’t about worrying about a test, it’s an overwhelming feeling of fear and dread that stops you in your tracks and pins you down. Depression isn’t feeling sad, it’s a black cloud that follows you, pouring down on you as you try to struggle through. Of course everyone experiences these conditions differently, but what I’m trying to say is that these conditions are serious, debilitating and traumatising. And that’s before I’ve even mentioned the conditions that are deemed unpalatable - Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote about this aspect beautifully in The Guardian. I accept my anxiety, but my God I’d rather not have it.
Writing about this stuff is difficult. Everyone experiences their own feelings their own way, and I don’t want to reduce anyone’s personal feelings, how you identify is your choice. However, I do want to say be careful. Be careful about saying you have OCD, anxiety or depression. If things feel bad go and see a doctor, don’t self-diagnose, don’t push a pathology on yourself that may not be applicable. Don’t say you cured your pathology through kale and HIIT, because when you do these things you risk reducing mental illness to something that can be easily dismissed, which is what things like World Mental Health Day has been trying to overcome. It is ok not to be ok, let’s make it ok for not being ok to be ugly.
* image: Alex Dixon Photography