Society is rightly focusing on supporting everyone to understand how challenging it is to experience or live with a mental health condition such as stress, anxiety, and depression. Great work is being done to raise awareness, remove stigma, and signpost support. Raised awareness has led to an increase in those identifying as experience a mental health challenge and removing stigma has opened the door to more people speaking. More and more organisations are launching to support those in need, many with services tailored to specific clients, from children, young adults, new mums, and men. As a Life Coach who specialises in mental health, I support all this work, but I am left questioning what, if any, negative impact might this new approach to mental health create. My primary reason for questioning this is my personal experience of being living with OCD and depression, and my families understanding of my mental health.
While I had experienced OCD and depression throughout my teenage years, in my early twenties, I was diagnosed. At that time, I was living with my Mum who herself has OCD and depression and has done for 30+ years. It’s my maternal bloodlines illness and our family history is constructed around the symptoms experienced by the women in our family. As much of our OCD centres around cleanliness and tidiness, we laugh (which I think is necessary) as the stories of my Auntie taking off the back of a 1970’s television to clean inside, much to my Uncles alarm when he arrived home from work. The hours invested in keeping our homes clean to live in them more as a prisoner than a person with true freedom. I share this to evidence upon my diagnosis my support network understood my challenges and had heightened awareness, there was no stigma, and instead, there was sympathy, and openly speaking about my symptoms, thoughts and feelings was welcomed. At 36, and having overcome my OCD and depression, not having experienced them in my thirties, but ever mindful of working to maintain mental wellbeing, I reflect on my relationship with these illnesses.
Upon reflection, I consider if my journey to mental wellbeing and the choices I made along the way would have been different had those closest to me not understood. As a review this the following are points that come to mind:
- When diagnosed with OCD and depression, I was offered medication first and because most females in my family were or had been on medication at some point in their life, I took them. There was no one there to challenge me on whether I needed them or not.
- When I discussed my mental health with my Mum and other well-meaning family members, we seemed to take on a ‘clique’ almost forged, less in battle, but in defeat against our illness. Our family knew OCD and depression, they were almost family members, and we did not challenge the existence of them but learnt to live with them. The lives of those in my family adapted to suit the illness and not challenge it.
- I discussed my symptoms, such as cleaning my teeth in the toilet, so I didn’t mess the sink, sitting on the floor so as not to disturb the sofa cushions or the challenge of getting in bed because I desperately didn’t want to mess it up. My family sympathised with these, shared their version of the illness and endorsed having these symptoms were fine and to understand no one in the family had the answer or ‘cure’. If there was a cure, it was taking medication until it worked.
- It was OK not to be able to get out of bed and not to be able to go to work. When I needed someone to support me to navigate living a fuller life, including managing a career, there was no one there. Conceding to not working and being supported by benefits was less something to overcome and more something to reconcile with and adapt to a lower income and a more sheltered version of my life.
- No one had tried any form of talking therapy and therefore was unable to offer advice on support on the potential to beat my mental health challenges. As a family, we spoke openly and communally had not found a way forward, speaking with other people who didn’t understand, seemed a redundant, almost indulgent process. Where talking had formed part of their illness it hadn’t been elective but enforced as part of hospitalisation; therefore it was something forced upon you in times of desperation as opposed to something you would choose. Where choosing so could also carry the risk of being hospitalised.
I love and respect my family, and I understand they are a product of their time and circumstances. Thankfully, I managed to break out of the family thinking and began a process of long-term recovery through coaching, therapy and now, daily self-care. This article isn’t about how I did it, although other articles answer this, this is about the potential risk of creating a society like my family.
- Where we understand mental health and the myriad of challenges a person can experience, we remove the stigma and open up the conversation, but do we risk accepting the illness?
- Does an in-depth understanding of the symptoms themselves force people to look for these and ultimately find them, resigning to a mental health challenge which I could argue is formed into existence?
- Does opening up and speaking about mental health challenges risk creating a collective consciousness resigned to living with rather than fighting against and ultimately overcoming?
I only ask these questions as I do not want another person to reconcile to living with a mental health challenge, but I do want them to understand there will be a unique way in which they will create recovery and a better life. I haven’t got the answer yet, and it maybe we have to see how this plays out.
I leave you with one of the cores of my coaching, put aside your diagnosis and focus on the symptoms you are experiencing, work on these, focusing on looking outward primarily for solutions. Understand life is challenging regardless of your mental health and building on your wellbeing leads to you to becoming ever stronger than those who may not have experienced your journey.