On World Mental Health Day (10 October), Prospect rep Robin Bradfield shares his personal experiences of how speaking up can make a positive difference
Although attitudes towards mental ill health are changing for the better, there is still some way to go. The Welsh Government has signed up to the Time to Change Wales campaign.
One of the ways this seeks to achieve its goals is by encouraging people to talk about mental health. This is what I have decided to do with this article.
I was afraid for far too long and can honestly say that the “doing nothing and suffering in silence” approach didn’t work. In fact, it made things worse for me, both personally and professionally. At one stage, I was even afraid about talking to my GP, because I was worried there would be evidence of my “feeble-mindedness” on my medical records.
My breakthrough came when, at a subsequent GP appointment, he asked me what I would do if I had a headache. When I replied that I’d take paracetamol or something similar, he said that’s all he was suggesting: for me to take some medication that should help to relieve the depressive symptoms I was experiencing.
I generally regard myself as a reasonably intelligent and well-adjusted person, but I was so affected by the stigma of admitting I was mentally unwell that I was preventing myself from getting better by denying my diagnosis and avoiding the treatment that would help. I doubt I would do that for any other medical condition I saw my GP about.
Thankfully, I responded to treatment and things returned to relative normality, for a while anyway. Such can be the insidious nature of depression, however, that when I experienced my most recent episode – resulting in a substantial amount of time off work – I hadn’t noticed that my wheels were not only becoming loose, but about to fall off, until it was too late.
I should have known something was up. Pressure at work had significantly increased and I’d started to be plagued by the kind of symptoms I tend to experience when unwell. I was suffering from acute anxiety, with many of the associated physical and psychological sensations, and depression, with many of the associated negative feelings and behaviours.
When the penny eventually dropped, at least this time I wasn’t worried about going to see my GP – a different one from who I saw previously, but fortunately an excellent one.
Listening and believing
I visited her regularly while unwell. Throughout I was treated non-judgementally, with understanding, dignity, respect, compassion, and kindness. Also, my feelings, needs and problems were really listened to and acknowledged.
I cannot tell you how important it was to be listened to and believed – that and her prescription for treatment: medication and therapy. I am still taking antidepressants and have just completed a course of interpersonal psychotherapy for depression. Both have been essential to my ongoing recovery, the latter particularly.
“Being believed” may sound like an odd thing to say, but paranoia was one of my symptoms. I was finding it hard to believe I was unwell and that others believed I was unwell. I had this terrible feeling of being seen as a fraud or malingerer. After all, I didn’t look unwell, so how could I be off work?
It wasn’t until I started therapy that I finally accepted I had depression, I was unwell and that this may not be the last time I would experience this.
I’m now back at work in a new role, which I am enjoying. I also feel well and more resilient. Despite this, I do continue to get the occasional sense of being a fraud. This isn’t due to anything anyone has said or done, but I notice it most if I smile or laugh. I feel guilty afterwards, almost as if I shouldn’t exhibit any outward signs of happiness because I’ve been depressed.
I know this will eventually recede, but it’s further evidence to me of the deep-seated misconceptions that still lurk in the dark corners of my own mind about depression and similar illnesses.
In many ways, I know and appreciate that I’ve been fortunate. I have an understanding family, good friends and colleagues and a great GP and counsellor. I’ve also had very good support from my union Prospect, occupational health and a particular human resources case adviser. On top of this I run. This has been motivating and, along with the medication and counselling, has helped me to manage my anxiety and depression.
While it has taken time to come to terms with the fact that I experience mental ill health, in many ways, accepting it has been a relief.
This is because I’ve been willing to accept that this is a part of who I am; better recognise when I am becoming unwell; take appropriate action when it happens and most important, not be afraid to talk about it.
I am finally at a place where I can be open with my family, my mates (that was a biggie) and my colleagues. Yes, it felt odd at first, but the more I’ve spoken about it, the easier it’s become.
- Robin Bradfield is Prospect branch secretary at the Welsh Government.