Dear Santa, please put mental health on the national curriculum

With a 2015 just around the corner and a General Election on the horizon UK mental health charity Rethink asked five bloggers what their one wish would be for people with mental illness for the year ahead. I was asked what I’d like to see in our schools and colleges.

Like many with mental health problems, my first symptoms appeared when I was a teenager. At the time, I had no idea anything was wrong. I knew adolescence was meant to be a rollercoaster, what with the ‘raging hormones’ and such-like, but I had no idea that my feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing weren’t just a normal part of teenage ‘brooding’.

Looking back, I sometimes feel quite angry. Why didn’t someone realise? Why didn’t *I* realise? I can’t now think of a more obvious case of depression. But with so few realistic portrayals of mental illness on TV at the time, my knowledge was very limited. I knew that my mum experienced depression, but I didn’t know what that meant. And besides, for every day I was accused of misery, there were ten more where I disguised my mood with humour. A dark and cynical humour, admittedly, but my teenage friends loved it. To me, some people were naturally miserable, I was one of those people, and there was nothing that could be done.

I was, of course, entirely wrong. There’s no cure for depression – that really would be a Christmas dream come true – but almost everyone with mental health problems can, and will, benefit from treatment.  This is one of the key ideas behind campaigns like Time for Change (which is led by Rethink in partnership with Mind). If people can be taught to recognise the symptoms of mental illness, and realise that treatments are both available and effective, then who knows how many lives could be saved and how much suffering could be spared? This is especially important in children and teenagers, since pre-emptive or early intervention can avert a lifetime of relapsing-remitting illness. But this rather begs the question, if we’re willing to spend tens of millions teaching adults about mental health, why don’t we teach it at school? Why isn’t mental health on the national curriculum?

It’s particularly puzzling when you consider the much bigger benefits of education beyond simply raising awareness. Talk to almost anyone with a mental health problem, and at some point they’ll wearily lament that, ‘people don’t understand‘. It’s fair enough; mental health problems, almost by definition, can involve some unusual beliefs and behaviours that don’t necessarily make sense from the outside. If we lived in a compassionate world, this wouldn’t matter. Suffering would simply be recognised, respected, trusted, and treated. But as much as the welfare state and the NHS try to sustain these values, the UK currently feels as far away from a climate of trust and compassion as I’ve ever known. This is a world, where we’re encouraged to wonder whether wheelchair users are secretly lazy, and dismiss substance abusers as inexcusably crazy. Such judgement, when coupled with ignorance, is where the real tragedy is made. Not mental illness itself, but stigma; the misconceptions, false assumptions, and myths that cause as much suffering, if not more, than mental health problems in their own right.

This Christmas, it’s been genuinely heart-warming to see so much donated to mental health through the Guardian Christmas Charity Appeal. Mental health desperately needs more money, and every pound brings a little more hope. But for that hope to be realised, and for the desperation to end, we need much much more. And the only way that’ll happen is if ‘people do understand‘. So this year, my one wish is for the gift of knowledge,

Dear Santa, please put mental health on the national curriculum.

A day in the life of #BlackDogRunner (07 November 2014)

The following recounts my experience of 7th November 2014. It was written as part of the ‘Day in the Life‘ project, which aims to capture the ordinary daily experiences of people living with mental health problems. You can read more stories on the project website.

“My alarm goes off. I feel like someone’s whacked me over the head. I’m always pretty groggy, but today’s worse. I slept badly. Sleep’s so important to my mood. A bad night is a bad sign.

I’ll have to wait for my brain to boot. I grab my phone, check the news, scroll through Twitter. 30 minutes goes by.

Dog Tired - it can take a while for the morning 'brain fog' to clear
Dog tired: it can take a while for the morning ‘brain fog’ to clear – until then, I have no idea what my mood will be

Yikes! It’s Friday, I need to work!

But first I need the toilet. My tummy hurts. It always hurts in the morning. I have irritable bowel syndrome. I sit on the toilet and wait. Another 30 minutes goes by. Damn irritable bowl.

I’m feeling pretty stressed. An hour’s past and all I’ve done is visit the toilet. Depression does that; steals time.

I’m supposed to go running. I need to keep up my running. But it’s raining. And I’m not sure I can face it. Running helps with my anxiety. But I’ve got so much work to do. I better just get on with it.

I post a tweet. I get a sympathetic message, that’s nice. Doesn’t get me anywhere though. Stop procrastinating!

The kitchen’s a mess. There’s no clean bowls or spoons. I wash some up, put on some porridge, and stack the dishwasher. I’m relieved that’s done. How would I cope without it?

Turn on my computer to work. My tummy hurts. And I feel sick. And tired. Oh, and low… The brain fog must be clearing. I feel really really low. Wish I could go back to bed.

Not sure I can face work. My illness has put me so far behind. Now it’s crunch time. Two months left on my contract. How will I cope with unemployment? The anxiety’ so bad.

I can’t work like this. I’ll eat my porridge and distract myself with Twitter. The porridge is nice. I’m usually in too much of a rush. Definite bonus of working from home. Some nice and supportive comments on Twitter. But it’s no good, I’m feeling desolate. This is the worst I’ve felt in ages. I lie on the sofa.

What’s happened to the time? What’ve I been doing? My partner is up, she’s working on the table. It’s so nice to have her around. But it’s nearly lunchtime and I’m running late. I’m meeting a friend. There isn’t time to shower. I wash my face, clean my teeth, and run.

Why am I always running? Normal people don’t run in the street. I must look so strange, in my shoes and coat.

I meet my friend. She understands depression, thank goodness. It’s so much easier, not having to pretend. It’s a while since we last caught up, she seems much better. I’m happy for her. It’s nice to be distracted. We talk about work. And how we’re both about to lose our jobs. Don’t get ill, that’s what I say.

The time has flown, it’s time to go. The food was horrible. I’m feeling even sicker. I’ll treat myself to a coffee. And one for my partner too.

I’m home, my partner is happy with her coffee. She has such a lovely smile. But where has the time gone? I’ve got so much work to do! I’m really anxious. I take a diazepam, sit down, and drink my coffee. Then I start work.

The diazepam’s made me sleepy, but I’m less agitated. At least I can concentrate now. I really need to finish this by the end of today. It’s dragged on so long. Hours pass, I barely move, the work gets done. Hyperfocus: the upside of ADHD.

I send it off. It’s mid-evening. I need the toilet again. I hadn’t noticed. Hyperfocus: I’ve been embarrassed by that before. Another 30 minutes goes by.

It’s Friday night, my partner’s stopped working, we treat ourselves. Pizza takeaway and Scott and Bailey. The pizza’s yummy. Good food always lifts my mood. But it’s not enough tonight. I’m so tired. And low. I’m finding it hard to follow.

We’ve watched two episodes. It’s best I go to bed. I’m desolate. Days like this are best abandoned. I take another diazepam, and give my partner a hug. She smiles. She has such a lovely smile. I’m so lucky.”