The time has come for us to address the fear and stigma surrounding mental health.
And believe me: there is a problem. The NHS’ report, Mental Health of Children and Young People in England reveals a lot about the state of our young people’s mental health. According to its findings, 1 in 6 young people between the ages of 17 and 19 suffer from a mental disorder — a number which has risen in recent years. However, there was an even more worrying statistic: of the 9,117 children who were surveyed, only two-thirds of those with mental disorders had made some kind of contact with professional services.
As young people, our mental health can affect our lives as much as, if not more than, our physical health — so why are we so hesitant to talk about it? At this point, I have stopped bothering to be embarrassed about discussing my mental health with other people. After years of living with anxiety and a year’s worth of therapy to help deal with it, I no longer feel the need to apologise for having a mental health issue, or needing help to overcome it.
When I was 16, my anxiety made my life near impossible to live. Every day was overcast by its shadow. I lived in constant fear of a panic attack and my emotions and relationships were unstable as a result. It was only when I was no longer able to bear it alone that I found the courage to ask for help. And for me, it worked.
It may help to think of mental health by comparing it to physical health, as the latter is something that everyone seems to be able to understand. A person’s physical health is always changing, and it does so in different ways and to different degrees. Perhaps you’re a person who has a relatively stable physical health: you eat relatively healthily, exercise every so often and aren’t suffering from any illnesses. Despite the fact that your physical health is pretty much fine most of the time, you might still get headaches every so often that cause you discomfort. You might catch a cold or the flu and have to miss a few days of work or school. You might even have an accident and break your leg, leaving you out of action for weeks or months at a time.
I would go as far as to describe this as the ‘average person’s physical health’, a phrase I use hesitantly as there is no such thing as an average person. There are no ongoing or debilitating illnesses, but there is still a human body with the potential to be affected by outside factors: catching a cold from a family member, falling down the stairs and breaking a bone, etc. Even people whose physical health doesn’t necessarily affect their everyday life in a particularly negative way are sometimes prevented from continuing with their daily routine by outside factors.
So if we can accept that everyone has a certain level of physical health, is it such a difficult step to imagine that everyone can also have a certain level of mental health as well?
Consider a person who rarely has cause to think about their mental health. On the whole, they enjoy the shape that their life is taking and they are happy with their family and friends. Though they will occasionally have a blip in their contentedness, say at work, school or in their relationships, for the most part, they have nothing to complain about and certainly no diagnosed mental health problems or disorders. Despite this, every so often a person will feel unhappy, perhaps with no clear reason why. This unhappiness may stem from a problem in their personal or professional life, leaving them feeling this sadness for an extended period of time. Perhaps the person experiences a sudden, traumatic event. All of these outside factors would affect a person’s mental health, in the same way that outside factors can affect a person’s physical health.
Let us consider again the idea of a physical health problem. Some physical health issues we can handle on our own, perhaps by letting our immune system fight them or by the aid of other remedies. For other issues, we need to seek outside help, normally from a doctor. If you, for example, break your leg in an accident, you’re unlikely to avoid medical attention and expect it to heal on its own. Our first instinct in these situations is to seek help from a professional.
The same is true for mental health. Some issues we can overcome on our own without professional help, perhaps through meditating on our problems or talking things through with the people we trust. Other mental health issues might be too complex to overcome without help, and this is where a professional’s help should come in. It’s not embarrassing to go to the doctor with a physical health problem, so why should you be embarrassed to visit a therapist with a mental health concern?
The most important thing that I learned through my experience with mental health is that there is always someone you can turn to. In school, it could be a trusted teacher or adult. Many HR departments offer free counselling to their employees. There are hundreds of mental health charities out there looking to help (Mind and the Samaritans are among my favourites). And if none of the above are relevant, the NHS offers free counselling services to all patients registered with a GP — and you don’t even need a referral from your doctor to apply. (Visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/free-therapy-or-counselling/ for more information).
Everyone has the right to visit a doctor: you don’t need to be diagnosed with a serious illness to do so. Similarly, everyone has the right to visit a therapist. You don’t need to have a diagnosed mental illness in order to seek professional help. Sometimes, it’s okay to just not be okay.
Ask yourself today: are you afraid to talk about your own, or other people’s, mental health? It doesn’t need to be this way. Imagine a world in which confronting our mental health is as normal and shame-free as walking into a doctor’s appointment. Take the first step towards looking after your mental health with as much awareness as you would give to your body. Your feelings are valid, and you are never as alone as you think.