Happy World Mental Health Day (and a rant about mental health in the workplace)

Happy World Mental Health Day 2017. I’m slightly grumpy as I wrote a nice long post then my internet broke, also I’m still receiving random parcels following a hypomanic episode last week which almost certainly means a very large credit card bill! Seriously, WTF did I even order?!

 

Anyway, moving swiftly on, the theme for World Mental Health Day 2017 is mental health in the workplace. A sensible choice given that $1 trillion is lost every year from the economy due to mental illness. I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty poor treatment at work due to my mental health (ex-manager who told me I just “needed to pull myself out of it”, I’m looking at you).  I’ve also had some wonderful employers and colleagues who’ve done kind things like invite me in for coffee (just so I don’t feel excluded from the team, no work related chat allowed), sent me cards and helped me with a gradual return to work rather than going all in and risking relapse.

 

Working full time in a demanding job isn’t always great for my mental health and there’s certainly frustration on my part that I can’t put in as many hours as my colleagues (I try to take a lunch break each day- even just 10 minutes and try and leave work within 20 minutes of my official finish time). Yes there are times when I go home and straight to bed, or avoid opening my emails because anxiety girl decides there is bound to be a message from my boss telling me I messed something up/forgot to attend a meeting/am fired, despite no evidence of any of these things!

 

Like physical illness, mental illness reduces my resilience so I have to take it easy to avoid the merry go round of getting better vs. burning out again. For me, work by far outweighs staying at home, I need the human interaction, I need to challenge my brain, I need the structure of being somewhere for 9 hours a day otherwise I’d get lost in a sea of spending my days in pyjamas and probably drinking endless cups of tea (who am I kidding, I DO drink endless cups of tea).

 

One thing is for sure, opening up to my colleagues about my mental health problems has largely been a positive experience. Sometimes people will tell me their own experiences, or offer me words of support. What helps most for me is when people ask me how they should respond to my mental health issues rather than avoiding the subject during conversation. It lets me joke about it (not always politically correct but I don’t mind calling myself crazy, the problem is when words are used with a negative implication), or when someone asks if I’m tired, allowing me to own up and say “Yeah, shit nights sleep as my anxiety is bad” makes a huge different because putting up a front is tough work.

 

So here’s to happy, fulfilled, healthy work! Keep talking and take care of each other.

 

 

5-things to do when you’re struggling with your mental health

Having hit rock bottom (with a splat) several times in my life, I’ve built up an awareness of what does and doesn’t help my symptoms.  Now, before I share this list, I’m want to say: this stuff isn’t rocket science but in the middle of a mental health crisis getting out of bed is hard, let alone anything else. It’s also easy to dismiss small changes and activities that stuff that psychs/nurses/relatives tell us will help.

During one particularly bad call to my crisis team I remember being told to slow down and start breathing deeply. I wanted to scream down the phone:”Breathe?! WTF do you mean breathe?! Of course I’m bl**dy well breathing, I’d be dead if I wasn’t. I’m calling you because I feel like I want to die and the best advice you can give me is breathe?!”

As it was, I did the breathing exercise like I was told and after a couple of attempts felt much better. I still remember the name of the nurse who took my call, her nagging me to breathe made a world of difference. I’m not going to say if you get your breathing right your mental health problems will vanish, we all know it’s not like that.

So without further rambling, I give to you my list of 5 things to do when you’re struggling with your mental health:

1. Write it down: I’ve journaled for about 15 years now, my journal provides a safe space for me to vent but it also helps me track my mood and look for patterns in my behaviour. It also means I get to splurge on stationary (particularly stuff that’s shiny….I love shiny!). If you’re struggling to open up to loved ones or professionals about your feelings, show them your journal instead.

 

2. Exercise (at the right time and with the right type of activity): I do not enjoy sweating. I don’t like lycra. You won’t find me in the gym. BUT I love how I feel when those happy chemicals are floating around after an hour of dancing. There’s plenty of research about the benefits of exercise to help regulate our sleep patterns, reduce our stress and increase our energy levels. The key is finding what works for you, I don’t run anywhere but I love yoga and cycling. On the days that feels like too much, a 20 minute walk is enough to give me a boost. A word of caution- time your exercise well, during a particularly highly strung phase, my evening exercise class gave me such a buzz I was awake until well after 1am. The Royal College of Psychiatrists have a nice leaflet about exercise and its’ impact on mental health here.

 

3. Avoid excess alcohol: Yep you feel more relaxed after that first drink. Maybe you’re drinking a few drinks to get you off to sleep each night. But remember: alcohol is a depressant. It wipes out that happy chemical serotonin (which is also the chemical many antidepressants work on). So not only are you making yourself more depressed, you’re also making it more likely that your antidepressants won’t have the full effect. Drinking to excess also puts you at risk of making poor judgements calls by decreasing your inhibitions.

 

4. Use technology to help, not hinder your recovery.  I love the internet. I love being able to research, read the news and access support groups at the same time as stalking people I know on social media. I also like to go on pinterest and make boards about tattoos I will never have the guts to get and recipes I will never actually make. Social media can bring out the worst in us: never ending comparisons about people we haven’t seen since school (Wow, she looks so happy, her family are gorgeous, I’m so jealous of that car etc) or reading too much into situations (two of my friends went for coffee?! Why wasn’t I invited?! I’ve obviously upset them and they don’t want to be friends with me.)  Lets not forget the sleep destroying effects of blue light emitted from phones and tablets. At its’ worst tech leaves us overstimulated and anxious. Can’t take a break? Force yourself to let a loved one change your passwords for a week- the temptation is gone. Or make a firm decision to put the tech down an hour before bed so that blue light doesn’t impact on your sleep.

 

5. Do something to occupy your mind. Distraction is a useful tool and yet one that we struggle to use. When I’m low, an hour can feel like a week and I don’t always see the value of doing something to take my mind off things, I’d rather sit in my pyjamas and stare into space. Do something to take your mind off things: read a book, do some colouring in (I’ve got a swear word colouring book that I love, intricately colouring the worse Asshole with pencils always amuses me), walk, knit, paint your nails, do some puzzles, download a free mindfulness app and try one of the exercises. Even if you set a timer and do it for 10 minutes, just DO it. You’ll feel proud that you have and often when the timer goes off you’ll carry on with your activity. I love to read but when I’m a bit manic I can’t focus on the words so instead I like to bake cakes. When I’m down I watch Youtube videos of baby animals, also a good way of keeping little people amused if you have them.

 

What small things do you do to help look after yourself when you’re struggling with your mental health? What baby animals would you watch on YouTube (panda’s are my fave). Let me know by commenting or e-mail. Pictures of sparkly stationary are always welcome too!

 

Depression and communication: Say what you mean and mean what you say.

 

Communication is one of the toughest barriers I’ve had to deal with during my illness. When I’m having an episode I find it incredibly hard to communicate how I feel in a way that doesn’t involve (a) crying hysterically/hyperventilating/ruining my mascara or (b) sounding like a petulant teenager: “It’s so unfair, I spend my life waiting for the next episode”.

I’ve also been on the other side trying to support friends who are experiencing mental health problems. You’d think my insider experience would help me communicate better but there are so many times when I feel like I’ve lodged my foot well and truly in my mouth.

Here are my top tips for communicating about mental health:

  1. Reach out and accept you may not get the response that you want. Sharing the problem and telling someone that you are feeling low period is nerve wracking. Choose wisely. If there’s someone who has supported you before then reach out to them again. Remember though, you don’t need to tell everyone in the pub what’s bothering you. Although you might feel like you’re wearing a badge with “I’m Depressed” in neon lights, people are generally too wrapped up in their own lives to think “Wow, she looks shit, clearly she’s depressed.” Accept that if you text a friend who is depressed, right now they might not be able to face texting you back. Yes, sending a simple text is outwith the capability of someone experiencing a serious episode of mental illness. (And don’t even get me started on the anxiety of answering the phone….)
  2. Empathise but don’t make it all about you. Don’t let empathy become competitive misery. Trying to out-do each other about who has been most depressed is not going to help anyone. I don’t pretend to understand what every anxious or depressed person is thinking or feeling. Sure, I relate to what they are going through but hearing about my 15 years of mental illness isn’t going to make them feel any better.
  3. Ask yourself if it’s a helpful thing to say and if it isn’t, don’t say it! A colleague once told me that people in our workplace were complaining I was off sick again. Did I immediately get my shit together and return to work that very day? No I did not. Instead I sat in my car in the car park of the coffee shop, cried and felt like a huge failure. It hurt that people I spent 8 hours a day with and counted as friends were talking about me behind my back. I even contemplated telling my workmates my diagnosis so they would believe I really was unwell.  My colleague didn’t mean to make me feel bad, but it would’ve been much easier if she hadn’t said anything. Then I’d have been blissfully unaware that some people are arseholes.
  4. Ask the person what they want. They might want to talk about their feelings. Others might want to talk about trivial things like the weather to take the spotlight off their feelings. Sometimes you just want everyone to go away for a few hours so you can lie on the sofa and stare into space. And that’s okay. It’s also okay to ask your loved one what they would prefer. Do they want to talk about how they feel today? If they don’t feel like talking, is text message an easier way to communicate. I’ve had some of my most supportive conversations in silence by the medium of text.
  5. Keep the sarcasm in check. Ah sarcasm, my second language. Sometimes I am so sarcastic people don’t know whether I’m kidding or not. Here’s a tip: Sarcasm is not helpful in a crisis. Sarcastically telling me I should just get on with killing myself is not helpful. The humor will be lost on me in that particular moment. Follow my lead. If I’m not being my usual sarcastic self then the chances are I won’t appreciate your sarcasm either.

Hope my list has proved helpful! Do you have any advice about how to communicate with someone experiencing mental illness? What do you find helpful when you talk to loved ones about your illness? I look forward to hearing from you.

The long wait to access mental health services

After eight long weeks I have an appointment to see a member of the psychiatry team. Not a psychiatrist. I appreciate that I have an appointment and many are still waiting. On the other hand, I already know this appointment is not right for me. Even the very helpful community psychiatric nurse (CPN) who called me yesterday to inform me of the appointment (in two weeks time) admitted that the person I really need to see is a psychiatrist but services are so stretched that the CPNs are now the “gatekeepers” for services in my area.
I have nothing against CPNs, but right now, I don’t want a CPN. As my GP says, I need a diagnosis and a treatment plan- the person to deliver that is a psychiatrist. I have to jump through hoops to get to the person I really need. Whilst I’m willing to do this, I also feel guilty that I’m taking an appointment at the expense of someone else on the waiting list who would benefit from seeing a CPN.
Not only do I want to feel better (because lets face it, wishing you weren’t here anymore every day isn’t much fun) but I want (need) to function better. I’m sat here at home earning statutory sick pay, I’m burning through my savings just to pay for the essentials. I need to get back to work, I need to earn to support my family. The stress from worrying about how long I will be waiting to get a diagnosis and treatment plan and what I will do if (when) I run out of money makes my depression worse. It’s like spending weeks of your life in a waiting room.
The government has committed to addressing the historic funding inequalities in the mental health sector, my question is this: Where are we going to find the staff to deliver these services? A recent report by NHS Providers stated that less than a third were confident that workforce planning would deliver the numbers of clinical staff required to provide services. It doesn’t matter how much money you pump into the system if you can get the nursing and medical staff to deliver on the vision.
We need to push mental health funding to the forefront of health care. I’d even go as far to say that we need to put mental health above physical health in our focus. Two or three years of increased investment does not undo decades of historic under-funding. We see countless charity events in the mainstream media for physical health illnesses, look at the support leading cancer charities achieve. I don’t remember the last time I saw publicity for a mental health charity on prime-time TV advertisements. It’s time for change- are you with me?

Today’s achievements: Crisps and a blog post

I’ve been thinking about starting this blog for a long time now. I mean, I’d have started it a lot sooner if I hadn’t been so, erm, depressed.  Right now, I’m mid-bout of major depression. I can’t work, heck, some days I can’t even get out of bed.

I’m taking the medication and, above all, waiting.  Some days the wait is easy, I get up, take my daughter to school and maybe have a cuppa with some friends. On these days I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain! Other days, the wait feels never ending. I don’t get up, or I get up and it takes 3 hours to have a shower. I get out of the shower, sit on my bed and cry for an hour.

There’s the brain fog. Forgetting the PIN for my bank card (the same pin I’ve had for 6 years), turning up for an appointment to discover that not only have you got the time wrong, you’re there on the wrong day. Driving the long way round town because you forget where you’re going and take the wrong turn round the one way system (don’t get me started on the one way system!)

I’d spent most of the afternoon in bed eating crisps (ready salted in case you want to know). No motivation to do anything. The hours were dragging, I was making a list of why it was pointless to get out of bed. I had to do something. I didn’t want to text a friend, there wasn’t much to say: “Hey, still depressed and still tired.” I started to think about how many other people in the world felt the same way as I do now. Probably a few, probably more than we know, probably there are people googling depression right now. Maybe they want to know they aren’t alone. And that’s when crazedandconfused was born!

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