Friday, 1 June 2018

Mental Health - Part 4

Given that we have recently had Mental Health awareness week, I feel that I should highlight one more very important thing: untreated depression can easily morph into something more serious. Psychosis and/or suicide are scary terms, the first one perhaps not always fully understood (click link to learn more). I have noted that several dramas and British soaps on TV have had psychosis as a theme in recent months (Silent Witness and Emmerdale among them). This suggests that perhaps either it is becoming more prevalent, or that it is becoming more recognised - or just that we are edging towards being better able to talk about such things. Perhaps the stigma really is beginning to lift on mental health? And if it is, then it is perhaps also because we are starting to publicly acknowledge it.

A few years back I knew someone locally whose brother had started to suffer from depression as a teenager. There were family traumas going on and he'd started a drug habit, unfortunately neither of which were going to help his mental stability. As time went on, the depression degenerated into psychosis. He became increasingly reclusive, not leaving his flat for days, certainly no longer able to work or function in normal society, and was often found with silver foil on his head and insisting there were soon to be alien invasions. While this may sound highly comical to the uninitiated, these are in fact very common symptoms of severe psychosis. He got admitted to a psychiatric unit but unfortunately was found dead not long after, having committed suicide. While this is an extreme, and very tragic story, it nevertheless has very important resonances - and is not as uncommon as you may think.

I have recently had direct experience of trying to deal with someone whom I love dearly but who lives far from me and, as became increasingly apparent, was suffering from psychosis following a long-term and poorly medicated depression. It was distressing, alarming, disorientating, surreal - and so hard to deal with long-distance. It was also almost impossible to get the right help from the medical fraternity. This is not a dig at the NHS. It is merely the way things are set up: patient confidentiality is all well and good in some circumstances, but when it comes to mental health this becomes an impenetrable barrier to trying to help the person who absolutely can't help themselves. I telephoned, I emailed, I documented my concerns with medical and observational evidence of someone I knew inside out. I did the research. I knew what I was talking about. Yet still it was nigh on impossible to get the right level of help and support. It took an overdose to do that.

It's that same old problem - because mental health is largely INVISIBLE, it is very hard to get the right diagnosis and consequent strategies in place. Telling a psychotic person who lives alone in a new neighbourhood of a large urban environment and who totally believes they are being 'watched' and 'monitored' that they should pop along to the drop-in clinic for an initial assessment, involving complicated bus journeys and set times to visit, is about as likely to happen as pigs flying. Basically it's like trying to guide a terrified five-year old child alone in a big city by remote control. Scary stuff. Especially when 'home' is a flat several floors up with balconies....

The question which most doctors ask if mental health issues are flagged up with a patient is, 'Have you had suicidal thoughts?' This question usually comes reluctantly and with an 'apology' for having to ask it. Does this not say it all? Such still is the shame associated with severe mental health - a hangover perhaps from when the Church viewed ending your life willingly as a Sin - that you have to apologise before asking a question which perhaps should have been asked some time back and which is asked out of love and concern. It is a common held myth that if you mention the S word, then you might put thoughts into a vulnerable person's head. In fact the exact opposite is true - if you shy away from talking about it, it is more likely to happen.

The most famous recent example of how talking about it is exactly what you should do, is the story of the young man on a bridge in London who was about to end it all until a passing stranger noticed him and made that crucial, selfless, intelligent, loving decision to stop and talk to him. He offered him a coffee. He held out the hand of friendship and understanding to a vulnerable person who is alive today - and thankfully spreading the word - because of that one act of compassion. The story has now been published as The Stranger on The Bridge by Jonny Benjamin and is available through Amazon (click on the link).

In the UK, 15 people per day die due to suicide (2017 stats). 10-15 times more attempt suicide. Bristol University has hit the headlines recently with a spate of student suicides from the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. The ex-girlfriend of a very old friend, with whom we travelled around Greece with in student holidays many moons ago when we were young and carefree, threw herself under a train a few years ago despite a loving husband and children and a prestigious career. Mental Health can hit any one of us at any time - young, old and everywhere in-between. It is a massive problem and we need to acknowlege it and address it. We can no longer afford to skirt the issue. We have to look it straight in the eyes and not blink.

Primarily, we need to nip situations in the bud. The over-riding feeling with people suffering from mental health issues - from depression, through anxiety and panic attacks, self-harming and psychosis - is a total sense of isolation, alienation and abandonment. The connection with the world has been lost. Loneliness really can be a killer. This is why it is so vital to talk. Human beings were never actually designed to live individualistically. We are community animals. We lived in packs. We shared our skills, helped and supported each other. We survived because of our togetherness. The time has come to try and re-work our modern lives. We need to reconnect - in the real world, not the virtual world. It will be a long uphill battle but it will be a battle worth fighting for and ultimately winning.

Useful links:-

HeadsTogether - mental health charity
Samaritans - myths about suicide
Rethink Mental Illness - charity and support
Jonny Benjamin - mental health campaigner

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Mental Health - Part 3

Leading on from my previous two posts about depression, here are some signs to watch out for and some suggestions of how you deal with them:-

  1. if you have a sleep problem, 
  2. if you grind your teeth, 
  3. if you feel permanently low, 
  4. if you struggle to get out of bed in the morning, 
  5. if you start to avoid human contact and become ever more reclusive
  6. if you start to lose interest in all the things you used to love....
.....then you need to take a long hard look at where you are and what help you might need.

Often the first step is pharmacology. Speak to your GP, no holds barred, and they should be able to decide whether indeed you need to be put on medication to help your body do what it can no longer do in terms of regulation of serotonin levels in the bloodstream. If you would like to understand current medical thinking on the link between serotonin and depression/anxiety etc then click here. Essentially, low levels of serotonin recorded in the bloodstream seem to equate with depression - but it is not known whether the depression (usually induced by stress) creates the low serotonin levels or whether low serotonin levels create the depression. It's a chicken and egg kind of thing. However, whichever way round it is, the result is the same: permanently low mood (sometimes punctuated by excessively high moods) and potentially some other psychological orders such as anxiety, irrational anger etc often accompanied by such physical disorders as IBS or recurring diarrhoea, disturbed sleep etc.

The next step, as it was in my case, may be to go to counselling (which I began a few months after I'd started with the medication). There are many out there who dismiss such things. What I say is this: your nearest and dearest are often the last people you can talk to; your friends weary of your tales of woe and endless negativity or of your infernal loop of repetitive thoughts and emotions; it is fundamental that you speak to a third party. Find the right person for you (I sought the advice of a counsellor friend who put me in touch with someone she thought was the right sort of person for me), and then go and unburden yourself on a sympathetic ear. You are paying them to listen, so tell them everything. Get it out there. Rid it from your heart and soul. Carrying it within you is the quickest ticket to ill-health. Sorry to revert to the diarrhoea theme, but it is far better to let it all out than stop it up with Immodium - this just means the bacteria remains INSIDE you, festering, and can lead to greater illness. It is the same thing with depression: there will be reasons you have ended up in the bad place you're in, so use the counselling sessions to talk about stuff. If you don't already know the stressors in your life or the events which have got you to where you are (the causes of depression can build up over many years), then the counselling sessions should help you find them and deal with them. GET IT OUT OF YOUR SYSTEM! DO NOT HOLD IT INSIDE YOU.

A common sense holistic approach to good health and wellbeing tells you that there is a sure link between mind, spirit, emotion and the body: if there are issues going on in your head and heart, they will show themselves physically. Equally, if you are being physically overstretched (new mums, marriages, deaths, bad relationships, house moves, new jobs, overly demanding jobs - and any combination therein) then there will be a knock-on effect in your mental/spiritual/emotional balance. Action-reaction. Everything has a consequence.

So, don't bore your mates and loved ones - they can only take so much. Find a professional third party (you can be referred to NHS ones through your GP) or, if you have the funds, find one that operates in your local area. Click here for the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy access to therapists in your local area. Talk to this third party for an hour a week, or whatever you can afford, for as long as it takes. You will know when you don't need to go anymore. I did.

However, once the talking's done, there may still be physiological resonances from your mental and emotional stress. For me this meant a permanently bloated stomach, regular loose bowel movements (sorry to bring this one up again!), yellowy whites of eyes and that key lack of 'sparkle'. This is when I went to a homoeopath. Now I know many ridicule this practice and all things 'alternative'. I'm not one of them - and I prefer to call it 'complementary' care rather than 'alternative'. I was recommended my homeopath by a good friend who'd used her and I found the experience totally positive, despite being sceptical at the beginning about the concept of homoeopathy. I went in with an open mind and I came out considerably better for the experience some 12 months or so later. Retrospectively, she told me that I had arrived in her consulting rooms in a 'deep state of grief'. While the counselling had dealt with arguably more superficial areas of my anxieties, clearly there was something much more deep-rooted - this intense sense of loss - which the homeopath identified through careful questioning of my food/taste preferences, my physical state and through prolonged talking. My body gave away its secrets to her - stuff that I knew I still held deep down inside me: lack of achievement, frustration, abandonment, loss of loved ones, loss of unborn babies, loss of self, loss of direction, loss of control, loss of self-respect and self-belief. In short, pain and insult and emotional injury that had not been dealt with and which I'd been burying for over 10 years (of which physical exhaustion - babies, builders, house moves - had been the straw which broke the camel's back).

As with the medication, as with the counselling, so it was with the homeopath: I knew when I no longer needed to go. Listen to your body; look at yourself in the mirror. Observe the changes to your digestive system, your sleep patterns, your mood, your tolerance, your behaviour. See how the look in your eyes slowly morphs back into something you once knew, as the light that used to shine there starts to glow again. Only then will you know that you have climbed that steep, dark, cold mountain and that you're freewheeling down the sunny side at last.

Never give up hope. For every trough there is a peak. It is the law of physics. It is the law of the universe - of which we are all part. Even in your darkest hour, believe that the sun will rise again.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Mental Health - Part 2

One of the problems with mental health is that it is not visible. If you walked into the room clutching your severed arm, someone would react. If you were covered head to foot in a rash, someone would take notice. If you have a red, streaming nose, a croaky voice and sneeze and cough incessantly, people know you're ill. If you walk into a room full of people and have to summon all the energy you have left to even raise a smile and a hello, no-one will know what effort that took. If you struggle to complete mundane tasks during the day, people will just think you're lazy and useless. Unless they spend a lot of time with you, or know the person you used to be, they will not spot that something is wrong. Only you know that life has become an uphill struggle. Only you know how defeated you feel. Only you know how you are trapped in a bubble of negative thoughts and feelings which often go round on an endless loop, never achieving resolution. Only you know how you wake up at 4am, in a cold sweat, your mind whirring, incapable of getting asleep again until it's time to get up. Instead people will weary of you and snap "Pull yourself together" when they have tired of your downtrodden aura and tedious conversation, fed up with your endless 'negativity'. Yet perhaps the most alarming aspect of such disorders is the fact that often the people closest to you don't even understand that you have a problem...

There is no quick answer to mental health issues. They take a long time to develop and a long time to cure. The biggest problem is taking that first step to recovery; for most people suffering from severe depression or similar mental health disturbances, it is a step too far and one that is nigh on impossible to do by yourself. Unfortunately though - and here's the catch - it is not always enough for someone else to initiate those first steps: it is YOU who has, ultimately, to understand and accept you have a problem and YOU who has to decide that you want to get better. It is this commitment from the individual which kick starts the healing process. And the road ahead will be a long one with lots of potholes to negotiate and many steep hills to climb. One day though, with enough effort, you will find yourself free-wheeling once again down the other side of the mountain - the wind in your hair and a smile on your face, revelling in the ease with which you now travel.

I hasten to add that there are exceptions, but I cannot discuss here those who have more genetically based disorders, or indeed dementia and other serious mental issues. I do not have the experience nor the expertise. I'm simply talking about the mental breakdowns which can occur from the continued pressure of life and the challenging and demanding events which take place within it.

Each and every one of us has personal thresholds - some can endure more than others. But when life's got you beat, it's got you beat. No apology. From the homeless man on the street to the stressed businessman with a drug habit, it's all the same. We're all just human.

In my next post on Mental Health I will highlight some of the signs you need to watch out for and ways in which you may start the slow climb back up the hill to a healthy mind.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Mental Health - Part 1

The space we occupy inside our head is the only place that no-one can ever reach. It is Man's most private area - it can be guessed at, but no-one, not even the most sensitive and intuitive observer or professional, can ever actually know the words, the thoughts, the emotions that pass through someone else's mind. At its best it is the space where we can be truly free, where we can think those blissful, private thoughts that no-one will ever know (unless we choose to tell them). Our imagination can run wild and we can be the most happy, successful person we might ever want to be. Yet while it can be the most positive of spaces where hopes and dreams are nurtured and examined and explored, where insights, analysis and intelligence are born and developed, it can also be the deepest, darkest of places. It can be the loneliest place in the world.

Fifteen years ago I was diagnosed with chronic depression. It had crept up on me over the years, life dealing me various blows which bit by bit built up into an insurmountable wall behind which I could no longer see the light and over which I had no energy left to jump or to smash it down. None of my experiences were exceptional - it was just a slow drip feed of events which built up inside me, sapping my energies, my self-confidence, my self-esteem and my sense of self. When I looked in the mirror I did not recognise my reflection. The light in my once sparkly eyes had dimmed and left me looking empty and sad. Where had that positive, cheerful, confident, singing-around-the-house, optimistic person gone? The one who embraced life, in all its possibilities, who loved people, who loved learning, who loved just being alive? Where had I gone?

It is quite scary to accept that you are no longer who you once were, especially if it is a negative change and one you hadn't contrived or ever imagined. It happens to so many of us, and is on the increase daily in this modern, stressful world which never stops spinning and demanding. There is no resting place, no hiding place. Life is full-on, in-your-face, 24-7. This is not healthy. This is not what life should be.

I have at least two family members who have suffered with depression, beyond myself. Another has just been added to the list. Mental health is currently slowly making its way to the surface of society from the depths of the abyss. It will finally find it's moment in the sun. It's been a long time coming and we must embrace this opportunity to let it shine like a beacon in this world we have created. 'Progress' never comes without a price. Currently that price is the cost to our mental health. 

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Still Dancing

It's past midnight and I'm sitting in my kitchen with a glass of wine and listening to some tunes wondering where the time has gone. Two of my teenage girls are out at an end of A levels exams party (aka massive messy piss-up) while the third is tucked up in bed getting some zeds before another long hard day at the Donkey Sanctuary shovelling shit (work experience...preparation for life...Lord knows, there's a lot of shit shovelling to be done). It's strange but I have an intense feeling of sadness. The social media feeds will be full and throbbing - endless photos of young people enjoying the time of their lives. It never comes without pain and heartache, but their lives are ahead of them and they're enjoying the moment. When you're nudging ever closer to the Grim Reaper, which I now undeniably am despite much head-in-the-sand stuff, there seems such a bitter-sweetness to their unbridled joy. It seems like yesterday that I was in sixth form, one of the best and most formative times of my life, for sure. Yet here I am 36 years down the line feeling that I want to be at the party too. Not literally, of course (I'd be chucked out!), but the one where I'm 18 too. It's so hard when they're taking the piss about me being interested in their lives and their gossip and all their friends. They just think I'm a weirdo. And yes, I am of course living vicariously. But how can you not when you were 18 once upon a time and now have three children to rub your nose in that small but significant fact?

It's impossible for children to ever imagine their parents the same age as them. But you know what, kids? We were once. We genuinely were. And the worst bit of getting old is that in your head you probably still are. The flesh may wither but the spirit never dies. So when they get embarrassed at your dancing and tell you to get out of the room cos you're 'ruining the vibe' that really hurts. They don't know that and they can't understand it yet. One day they will. Just like I know that my mother's 80 year old body is letting her down, but she still likes to dance. It will be a sad old day when that urge has finally left us, but I think even the oldest of the old still like to dance...and if you've lost the urge to dance, then you've probably lost the will to live. The music may change but the rhythm's in us all. It's as old as the hills, as old as time.

Talking of which, it's probably time to turn the music off now and go to bed. At least I won't have a hangover tomorrow morning, but I'll enjoy hearing the stories and I'll still be wishing I was 18 again. Will I ever get used to the fact that there's no turning back the clock? I doubt it.

Monday, 12 June 2017

General Election 2017

I am no politician but I do have eyes and ears and (currently) a functioning brain which compels me to write down my observations, for my own benefit if no-one else's:-

The Conservatives are now in deeper chaos than they ever were (and certainly as deep as Labour has been too); and with the naive aim to take us into 'hard Brexit' negotiations with the country more fully behind her by calling a General Election, our Prime Minister has thumped a massive own goal into the back of the net.

Meanwhile middle-class 'Remain' voters turned out in their droves to vote Labour thankful that they had been gifted this golden opportunity to undermine the government's Hard Brexit strategy, as did the Youth vote which had been slow to get out of its bed for the Referendum not believing that the EU they had grown up in could be taken away from them so easily. Equally, traditional blue-collar Labour voters who had voted Leave in the Referendum and had perhaps shifted votes over to UKIP prior to the Referendum result, were delighted to feel they could go back to putting a cross in the Red column given that the Leader of the party was a hard-line supporter of the Unions back in the 1970s and advocates re-nationalisation of many of our public services. one fell swoop, this is what's happened:-
- the democratic result of the EU Referendum has been undermined
- our Government doesn't know what's up or down
- we are the laughing stock of Europe
- with the rise of Corbyn, UKIP is a dead-in-the-water party (which is bringing Farage crawling back out from under his American stone)
- and, most ironic of all, the two extremes of Labour voters both voted Labour for opposing reasons: the one to uphold all that is British and to return to a Britain where Britons are in control; the other to try and undermine the very decision their fellow Labour supporters from, dare I say, somewhat less privileged backgrounds, had voted for barely a year ago.

Quite where we go from here is anyone's guess. 

Thursday, 25 May 2017

A Minute's Reflection on a Virgin Train

11am, Thursday 25th May, 2017

We have just had a minute’s silence on the Virgin train down to London for the victims of the Manchester bombing. I focused my mind not just on the pain of the senseless losses that innocent people have endured - none more than the loss of a child - but on the belief that the Good in the world will overcome the Evil. If collectively we all hold this as our intent in our mind’s eye we might yet achieve what currently seems impossible. While we appear to be sliding into the second era of The Dark Ages, history informs us that Enlightenment follows at some point. We usually have to reach rock bottom to be able to climb back out from the dark depths towards the light. If humanity collectively has this as its goal, its belief, then perhaps it will be achievable. It may not be in our lifetimes, but it will be in someone’s. It is currently humanity’s greatest challenge but we must believe it is possible. 

This will not be achieved by fragmentation. As a society we have become so focused on the Individual, or at best in the small world around us. While I fervently believe that charity begins at home and that self-love is the start of all growth and generosity, the bigger picture must never be lost. Individual communities and countries must be allowed to sort out what works for them, but all of us must have an Overview of the world, a planet spinning in infinite, unfathomable Space that we all inhabit and which we should all love and nurture, as small parts in the collective whole. This does not necessarily mean economic globalisation and that 'bigger is better'. Small is best, but small needs to be a part of that greater whole - a functioning, effective, perfectly fitting piece in the world jigsaw. Forcing the wrong shape into the available hole is never going to give a harmonious picture - there will be lumps and bumps and the jigsaw will look awkward. This is where we’re at right now. We need to take a long hard look at the pieces that don’t fit properly and start moving them around till they find their rightful place. 

Freedom is at the core of civilisation but so are basic laws of Love and Peace. War never provides answers, only more problems. Love Thy Neighbour has never been more important. It is only with faith in man’s essential goodness that this battle will be won.
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