We live in unprecedented times for self-disclosure. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook... Sometimes it feels like all facets of our lives are shared with the world. Apart from one. Despite mental- health issues affecting more of us than ever, talking about them – telling those closest to you – remains a taboo for many.
One in four Britons experiences a mental-health problem each year, and twice as many women as men suffer a serious bout of depression in their lifetime. But how do you explain to friends, loved ones or colleagues that you’re struggling to find a reason to go on?
That was a concern for management consultant Kirsty* from London who slipped into a spiral of depression two years ago. ‘For the first week I called in sick to work and told my housemate I had flu,’ says Kirsty, 29. ‘It wasn’t just that everything felt awful, it was the dread that it was all going to get worse. I avoided calls from my mum and friends, and felt so alone, stuck inside this darkness in my head. I desperately wanted to ask for help, but I felt ashamed that I couldn’t cope.’
It’s a worryingly common experience. A recent survey by Time To Change, a campaign to help end mental-health discrimination, revealed that nearly 60% of people with a mental-health problem wait over a year to tell those closest to them. The stigma that still surrounds conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder [OCD], stress, anxiety and depression means people are unable to receive support from their family and friends when they need it the most.
‘It’s very hard to imagine this happening with physical health issues,’ says Sue Baker, director of Time To Change. ‘But people experiencing mental illness often feel scared to talk to loved ones because they fear they will be judged, or that assumptions will be made about them. This means many people don’t tell anyone at all, which is the worst thing you can do.’
Kirsty struggled alone for three weeks before eventually telling her mum, who revealed that other family members had experienced depression. Together, they arranged for her to see her GP who prescribed the anti-depressant citalopram.
But Kirsty felt unable to tell a man she’d only been seeing for three months and made an excuse to cut off all contact. And it took over six months for her to feel able to open up to her close friends.
‘I was worried that being labelled a “depressive” might mean my friends would treat me differently, or exclude me from things like nights out,’ says Kirsty. ‘I also felt incredibly guilty, as if I had no “right” to be depressed. I had a good job, great friends and lots to look forward to.’
Just like any other illness, depression can affect anyone – even those who appear to have an enviable life. Celebrities, sports stars and MPs are increasingly speaking out about their experiences of mental illness, helping to keep it high on the news agenda and break down the stigma.
Lena Dunham mined her personal experience of OCD to inform her character in Girls, educating millions about the condition. But other stars go to huge lengths to hide their illnesses. The Saturdays’ Frankie Bridge secretly battled depression for eight years, culminating in her being hospitalised in 2011.
‘Whoever you are, depression can make you think you are the only one who has ever felt that way,’ says psychologist Cheryl
I avoided calls from my mum and friends, and felt so alone, stuck inside this darkness in my head
Nolan. ‘The important thing to remember is you’re not alone, and if the feelings persist for two weeks, you must talk to someone you trust. Let them know you don’t expect them to be an expert in mental health, you just want them to listen. The sooner you do that, the sooner your recovery can start.’
‘We need to encourage talking and listening, to keep having conversations about mental health, because the more we hear about it, the better,’ says Matt Haig, author of Reasons To Stay Alive, about his 16-year-long battle with depression and a panic disorder. Matt credits his wife Andrea with helping him cope.
‘I owe Andrea everything,’ says Matt. ‘Telling people you love, and who love you, is such a help. And rather than make me feel like a weirdo, being open made me realise how many others suffer similar experiences. Just as none of us are 100% physically healthy, no one is 100% mentally healthy – we’re all on a scale.’
Cheryl Nolan advises anyone suffering from a mental illness to tell their partner as soon as they can, even if they are the only person they tell. ‘This can be seen as the scariest thing of all, especially if it’s early in a relationship and you are still getting to know each other,’ she says. ‘But depression can cause changes in personal relationships. Put simply, you are not yourself. It is important to let them know so they can understand and support you. If you feel it is early days to be discussing something so “serious”, ask yourself if you’d really want to be with someone who couldn’t cope with you admitting you have an illness.’
When Kirsty finally ‘came out’ to her friends, she found she was met with acceptance and understanding, and even tips for coping. Far from seeing it as a weakness as she had feared, it strengthened her friendships. ‘I wish I’d done it sooner, and I wish I had felt able to tell the man I was dating instead of just assuming he’d be scared off,’ she says.
Sharing information is the most powerful tool in battling the negative perceptions around mental health, and breaking down the stigma that prevents people getting help. This is one kind of over-sharing we should all be getting behind.
Words - Emma Ledger
Time To Change’s advice on discussing your mental health
Telling your family:
‘Choose a quiet time and be ready for lots of questions. They may feel uncomfortable and try to move the conversation on, but it’s still helpful to take the first step.’ Telling your partner: ‘Do it as soon as you feel able. Be as open as you can so they can support and understand you.’ Telling your friends: ‘Speak to them one-to- one or in small groups. Reassure friends you don’t need them to be an expert, just little things like listening can help.’ Telling your work: ‘Pick a time and place when you’re comfortable, and arrange a meeting with a colleague you trust. If you’re unsure, ask to meet with someone from HR who can give you advice.’