The time I saw demons: let’s remove the stigma of mental health

Paul Hollywood‘The witch’ first started speaking evil thoughts into my mind when I was working in a hospital in Gambia, West Africa. To everyone else she was a concerned-looking 50-something woman crouching over a feverish relative. My supernatural sensitivities told me otherwise. Utterly oblivious, I was suffering the horrifying symptoms of schizophrenia and was utterly convinced these hallucinations were real.

It was several weeks later, after returning to the UK, that reality slowly returned and I stopped hearing voices*. It took me years to gain the courage to tell anyone about my experiences – and even longer to write about it. For this is the nature of mental health illnesses: few people want to talk about them, it is shameful to suffer them and – even in 2015 – those affected are often branded ‘mad’ or ‘weak’.

This Saturday (10th October 2015) is World Mental Health Day and is an opportunity for us all to understand a little more about how mental health problems affect so many of us. One in four people reading this article will have experienced a mental health issue in the last year – and nine out of ten will have experienced some discrimination or stigma because of it. Yet remarkably, most of us are still scared about mental health: surveys show that a quarter of us say we wouldn’t want to live near or work with someone who has a ‘mental health problem’. Celebrities such as Ruby Wax and Great British Bake Off’s Paul Hollywood are talking openly about their problems (depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, respectively) but it is still a daily effort to forget the nonsense we have been taught. For example, someone with clinical depression doesn’t just need to “cheer up”; post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers do not need to “pull themselves together”; self-harm doesn’t affect teenagers only, and those with eating disorders don’t respond well to being told to “eat more”.

This year’s World Mental Health Day has a special focus on ‘dignity’ and if you do nothing else this year, pay a visit to the ‘Time to Change’ website to sign an online pledge, saying you want to end mental health stigma and discrimination. For those directly affected, Wiltshire Mind are a fantastic charity in my region that offer free services and are currently expanding to offer more 1-to-1 counselling. Throughout the year across the UK there will also be ‘Tea and Talk’ events, which offer refreshments, showcase artwork and encourage low-key discussion about mental health. Above all else, the one thing of all of us can do is simple and costs nothing. Just talk.

Know of a good mental health organisation in your area or country? Leave them in the comments below and I can add them to the article.

Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Other mental health support organisations:

*Footnote: I was experiencing severe psychiatric side effects of Lariam (mefloquine), the anti-malarial drug I was taking while in Gambia. A brain tumour that was diagnosed three and a half years later was also a contributory factor to the delusions and hallucinations I experienced. I had occasional brief schizophrenia-type symptoms in the two years after returning but these fully resolved without medication.

Photo credit: Mosaic Marketing via Flickr CC

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