World Mental Health Day was initiated by the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) in 1992 to highlight the importance of mental health. This year, the WFMH has chosen “Mental Health and Older Adults” as the theme for World Mental Health Day and in order to celebrate this most auspicious (and necessary) of days I’ve put together something a little different from my usual ‘personal perspective’ of mental illness.
In keeping with the theme, I decided to interview two brave and courageous souls about their experiences with mental illness. These people have been fighting on the front line against mental illness for over forty years and have been, amongst other things, consumers, carers and mental health advocates. They are also the people I have to thank for bringing me into this world; my parents.
Just so people can get to know you; could you introduce yourselves a little?
MUM: I’m 58 years old, married for 39 years and have three grown up children. I enjoy travelling, gardening, reading, puzzles and voluntary work.
DAD: My name is Richard; I am a 61-year-old male who has been married for 39 years and have three adult children. I worked as a Sales Representative until 2008, when I had to leave my job after suffering from a stroke.
I like: travel, food, all genres of music, genealogy and good television drama. I dislike: TV programs that involve a judging panel (i.e. X Factor), bad manners and being late
What are your experience(s) with mental health?
MUM: As a carer, my daughter developed mental health issues when she was 10 and thirty-three years later she still suffers. My youngest son has had problems for a similar length of time but I was not aware of them for many years.
I also have MH problems which have included various labels; depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, self harm and borderline personality disorder, although I prefer not to have a specific label, I just suffer from mental health problems just as I suffer from diabetes and under active thyroid and sight problems.
DAD: My experiences with mental ill-health go back to 1972 when I was first diagnosed with depression and put onto the then wonder-drug, Valium. Since then I have had recurring episodes of depression mainly caused by stress and anxiety. I am also a carer to 3 members of my family who all suffer with mental ill-health; my wife and two of my children one of whom has suffered with Eating Disorders and OCD since the age of 10 and the other with Bipolar.
What do you think are the best and worst things about your mental illness?
MUM: Best; I’ve learnt a lot about myself and mental health in general. Worst; Professionals thinking they know what is best for you and only treating your label, not you as a whole.
DAD: Are there any good things about mental illness? Well I suppose it has brought me into contact with some lovely people who I otherwise would not have ever met. Some of them are now close friends.
What is it like to be the parent(s) of children whose lives have been affected by mental health issues?
MUM: Heart-breaking, guilty, wish you could suffer for them and magic the problems away. It’s also frustrating not being able to make professionals understand your child’s problem, them blaming you for how you brought up your child.
DAD: To be a parent of someone with mental illness is horrendous. A parent always wants to make things better but we can’t. No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible in most cases to completely make someone with a mental illness completely “better”. It’s a matter of coming to terms with the condition your child has and accepting their new persona and capabilities, but this is extremely hard. Also whilst a parent can offer support the best progress with recovery is nearly always made by someone outside of the family.
In the mid-1990s, you established a charity for carers of people with mental health problems. What inspired you to set up the MH Carers charity? Did you have any specific goals in mind or was it more of an organic process that changed over time?
DAD: MH Carers Support Group was set up because at the time our daughter was admitted to hospital at the age of 11 with anorexia and there was no support for us as parent carers. We decided that if there was none for us there must be other people in the same situation and rather than limiting the group to one condition we decided to open it to all mental ill-health. We found it surprising that no matter what condition/label people were caring for, all the carers problems seemed to be extremely similar.
The term M.H. by the way obviously means Mental Health but was actually suggested from the term “Mad Hatters”. We had no paid staff everyone was doing it in their spare time.
At its peak the group was a fully registered charity and had a mailing list of 130 people just in the Gwent area of South Wales. We held fortnightly meetings with average attendance of 25 people.
What are some of your favourite moments or memories from your time running the MH Carers charity?
DAD: We have many favourite memories. The sheer relief on a new member’s face when they realise that you know what they are talking about and they are not alone any more. Taking groups of carers out for day trips so that they could forget about their problems for a while. We took them to Stately Homes, the Theatre and BBC TV Studios. Also getting them playing silly games at the Christmas parties and seeing them laugh again.
Obviously for us, the highlight was getting invited to a Queens Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in recognition of our work.
My saddest moment was when I had to retire from running the group and realising that no one else was prepared to take it on; a very sad moment after 16 years.
Did running the MH Carers change your perception of your own mental health or of mental health in general?
DAD: Running MH Carers taught me a lot about Mental Health. It was not something I knew much about except for the normal misconceptions that most people have. It taught me just how much mental ill-health differs from the impressions people have of it. It helped my own depression to talk to other people; it was a release of feelings.
What does recovery mean to you?
MUM: Recovery – how can you recover from a part of life that is part of you? I suppose recovery is a return to a life I enjoy and are comfortable with, be that on my own or with professional help and never forgetting that having a mental illness has made me a stronger and more interesting, patient and empathetic person.
DAD: To me recovery means learning to cope with your condition so that you can function on a daily basis in a way that you yourself are happy with. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks…I mean what is normal? Normal to one person is ridiculous to another.
Over the years, you must have come across a variety of different coping mechanisms, therapies and treatments. Which have you found to be the most successful in managing your mental health issues?
MUM: the list is extensive; relaxation classes, anxiety management, art therapy, gardening, individual support worker, CBT, DBT, MH carers. The one that has made the most change to my life is DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). This taught me lots of coping strategies using mindfulness, CBT, and relaxation which have been useful to use at different times in different situations.
Other therapies – e.g. art therapy and gardening – were very good at the time, especially as a distraction and learning to talk about my feelings, but apart from enabling me to cope and benefit from DBT, they did not teach me any long-lasting coping strategies.
DAD: Through the group we discovered and tried many different therapies and treatments like Aromatherapy, Reiki, Reflexology, Relaxation techniques, Hypnotherapy and the list goes on. Personally I have had great success with reflexology and Reiki which I found extremely relaxing, especially when I was working, due to lots of stress, anxieties and driving thousands of miles each week.
I also found that when a particular issue was causing anxiety, I would think what the very worst outcome could be and then think how likely that would be and realise that it wasn’t quite as bad as I first thought it. Doing this put things into perspective. Also having some realistic targets – both short-term and long-term – can work wonders.
‘Older people’ are often dealing with several health problems at once (such as heart conditions, diabetes etc.). Do you think there is any correlation between your physical and mental health problems?
MUM: Diabetes had a major impact, if my blood sugars were high my mood would drop, if my mood was low I wouldn’t bother with my diabetes so my blood sugars would go up – a vicious circle that took years for the professionals to recognise even though I kept telling them how one condition affected the other.
Similar situation with thyroid, not enough thyroxine equals low mood, so balancing the three conditions was/is hard. No professional treated the whole, just their own specialty. It wasn’t until DBT that all the conditions were treated together and I became one person
DAD: Mental Health and physical health can go hand in hand. If one is affected it can affect the other. My asthma is a nuisance rather than a hindrance it only makes me more depressed when I have an attack but the Stroke did play a part in making my depression worse for a few years. It is a common side effect of stroke. Again it’s a matter of accepting the condition and limitations.
This year’s World Mental Health Day aims to encourage governments and organizations around the world to look at the mental health issues experienced by older people in their communities and to consider their needs for support and services. What do you think your local/national government could do to better support older people with their mental health issues?
MUM: Remember that older people with Mental Health problems exist and there should be no age discrimination in the treatment they receive. They are ordinary human beings.
DAD: The needs of older people are always news in the UK, not enough being done, too much being done etc. The biggest thing that would help most older people is a little time and resources, something there seems to be a distinct lack of at the moment.
In our news here Councils are being rubbished because many older people needing social care have had the visits of their carers cut to just 15 minutes – this is for people with physical illness as well. Assessments are carried out but the trouble is there are no resources or funding to provide what is needed in each case. I requested some ongoing counseling for help with my caring role; I was offered one day at a health spa, which wasn’t quite what I wanted or needed.
Life today is just too fast for many; just a little time with someone could make all the difference.
What one thing do you wish people would understand about mental illness?
MUM: Mental Illness is normal; it is nothing to be ashamed of.
DAD: My message is probably a long one:
Mental Illness is grossly misunderstood, bad coverage in the press and papers give the general public the wrong impression. If someone breaks a leg it is put in plaster and everyone can see the problem and help. The brain cannot be put in plaster but then, as no one sees the problem, they think there is nothing wrong; “he looks healthy enough…what’s wrong with him?”
The brain is probably the most complex part of the human body; surely it shouldn’t be surprising that it goes wrong sometimes. With modern life becoming more and more stressful mental illness is going to increase, so the more people become aware that they could be affected the better.
Mental Illness is just an illness like any other (Cancer, Heart Disease, Kidney Failure etc.) and it can be just as life threatening, for example, through suicide and by the illness affecting other parts of the body (such as with Anorexia).
Services need to improve in the UK. All physical health issues have a maximum target waiting time, but Mental Illness doesn’t, which means that young girls with anorexia can wait for over a year before they receive help. That cannot be right.
Everyone needs to accept that mental Illness is a real problem that can affect anyone; even the great Winston Churchill suffered from it.
The sooner that is realised the better for all.
I’d like to thank my parents for being so honest and open with their answers and hope this interview will inspire you to start a few conversations of your own on this World Mental Health Day. Should you have any questions or comments, feel free to ask/leave them in the comments field below and I hope you all have a happy and safe World Mental Health Day! :)