“When I say to people ‘I’m terrified I have a brain tumour’ they are a bit taken aback” – Mental Health Q&A

Interview by Stuart Graham
Answers by Colin Chapman

Q-What is the first word that comes to your mind when you hear the phrase ‘mental health’?

A- Maybe deprivation. Just because of the limited services available. It doesn’t matter where you are. Whether at uni, the actual NHS itself, or school, the service is always strained. There’s never an abundance of support available. I had this issue back in the previous semester where mental health began interfering with my uni work and I went to the services and was told there was a three week wait, and you think “I don’t wanna take a place from someone else but in the meantime what am I supposed to do for three weeks”. It’s because you can’t just turn it off for a few weeks and then decide oh right I will just turn it back on now because I can get help. So, I would say… I don’t know if deprivation is the right word but it would definitely be a negative word.

Q- Is there a specific time in your life you felt most affected by a mental health struggle?

A- Yeah absolutely, I remember the very moment when it all went down. I had never really had any issues before, but I was in sixth year of high school and I was just sitting in my English classroom and I don’t know what happened. I was just sitting there writing when all of a sudden my writing became messy and looking up at the board I realised I couldn’t see a damn thing on it, I couldn’t hear anything around me and then this tidal wave of fear rushed through my body and I was convinced I was about to die. I remember thinking “what is happening to me?”, and that was my first panic attack.

I don’t have them anymore, I only had them for a few months. I’m actually a lot better now, so this is kind of an interview in retrospective, like a success story. I mean obviously for me it never really fully goes away, but I am much better now. I feel like my case is quite unique, as the majority of people who deal with mental health can’t seem to pick out one specific moment where it all went wrong. For most, it’s something that builds up over time, or even something they don’t even really notice is there – like with depression. But I can truly say that it hit me completely out of left field. One day I was happy, and the next, terrified for my life.

Q-Before you yourself experienced mental health issues, did you know much about the spectrum or different ways people can be affected by the struggles mental health brings?

A- I’d say yeah. My mum is a manic depressive, she had postpartum depression actually, which could possibly have had an effect on me, I don’t know – I would have to go into that with a therapist. I mean I would say I know a lot more about it now through my own experiences, but that the only experience I had with it, well the most significant anyway, is the one with my mother, which effects our relationship to this day. So yeah I would say so, but I definitely have a broader knowledge now that I’ve experienced it myself.

Q- Do you have certain things you think you do as a means of coping with these mental health struggles, or did you in the past?

A- Yeah I still do. What I have is OCD, which causes anxiety. My OCD manifests in a very specific way and I’ve not met very many people who are as deeply affected by this, but maybe this will raise awareness, I don’t know. It manifests as health anxiety which I think the medical term for is hypochondria. I mean everyone has had that thing where you get a headache and you google it and end up like “oh shit, I’ve got a brain tumour”. But for me, I get the headache, I google it and then I obsess about it for weeks on end. It interferes with my daily life, and I don’t do my assignments because all I can think is, “what’s the point, I’m gonna die”. Any life threatening illness you can think of, I’ve been terrified and utterly convinced that I’ve had it at some point. It seems strange to a lot of people, like you wouldn’t think of that as something that’s legitimate, I guess, but when I say to people “I’m terrified I have a brain tumour” they are a bit taken aback.

But the original question was about coping mechanisms so I will actually get onto that! As a personal coping mechanism, I feel my heartbeat, to calm myself down and to check that I’m still alive. I even pinch myself to make sure my body isn’t going numb, as that’s a thing that happens a lot with anxiety. But the most effective thing I did to actually cope with it, was to just talk about it with other people. I know that this won’t help everyone, but for me, actually sitting down in front of someone and saying aloud, “yeah I’m scared I’ve got heart disease, a brain tumour and mad cow disease”, you can begin to realise how ridiculous it is. So that kind of helped me put things into perspective. When it’s in your head and you don’t say it out loud you feel kind of detached from it, but then you say it out loud to someone else and you’re like, “oh my god this is ridiculous, why am I terrified of this?”.

Q- Are there times when you’ve gone to use these coping mechanisms and they haven’t worked for you? And in those times how did you deal with the situation?

A- I guess I don’t. It hasn’t happened very often but there was once when I was in the cinema. I was near the end of the film, and I was with my friend and I think it was Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen, and the character in it has severe anxiety issues, and this was soon after I had my first panic attack so it was still kinda fresh. I began to feel a tingling in my hand and thought ‘Oh shit here we go’. So I began to start feeling my hand but I couldn’t feel it so that coping mechanism of being able to feel it was just bypassed and I tried to feel my heartbeat and I couldn’t, as my mind was just racing, so I said to my friend “Sorry, I need to go to the bathroom” and just walked out of the theatre and the complex it was inside. It was just getting worse and worse and my whole body felt like it was on fire; I couldn’t breathe. But I was still walking in a straight line, so on the outside no one would have noticed there was anything wrong with me, but inside I was burning up and basically just ran home. But then by the time I got home, after about 10 minutes, it was gone, I had completely calmed down and had to text my friend to explain. That’s the one example I can think of where my coping mechanism just failed me.

Q- Is mental health this kind of thing you find yourself only talking about with certain groups of people?

A- No, I tend to be very open about it. Like if I feel it’s relevant to a conversation I’m having, I will bring it up. I’m not afraid to bring it up in front of anyone because I’ve found that the more afraid I am of bringing it up the worse it gets. So I just talk about it wherever, whenever, to anyone and everyone I can, and that way I don’t become detached from it; I don’t internalise it. It’s how I avoid any sort of shame or stigma, like I don’t want to put stigma upon myself, I feel like that’s the worst thing you can do.

Q- You mentioned your mother’s mental health issues, so I was just wondering if you talk to your parents a lot about mental health and your personal struggles?

A- Well my mum and dad are split up. But my mum has had a lot of the same anxiety issues, actually particularly hypochondria, she’s struggled with that as well. So she has been a source of comfort from time to time. I do talk about with my dad too, but he doesn’t have quite as textured a history of mental health as my mum. It’s not exactly them that helped me get over it, it’s everyone I’ve had around me.

Q- Moving more toward mental health as an issue within society, do you feel like mental health is trivialised in today’s culture?

A- No I don’t. I think it’s not so much a problem with stigma – there is of course a problem with stigma, but it’s better now than it’s ever been – the problem is the resources. The medical community understands that it’s a problem, that it’s an issue, and they don’t stigmatise it. The support and resources just aren’t there in the medical community however, because of policy and government funding. There is of course still stigma, as in you get the odd wank who calls schizophrenic people crazy and stuff like that. But I don’t think it’s an issue that is actually affecting the support that’s there for mental health, because that’s more to do with austerity than anything else, not so much a lack of understanding that it’s actually a real issue.

Q- Can you talk me through a time you personally felt affected by stigma or there was a lack of understanding of your mental health issues?

A- I think any struggle I’ve felt in not being understood is from how obscure my own struggles are, as very few people with mental illness are hypochondriacs. It’s not a very common manifestation. So I can’t speak for people who have depression or generalised OCD, or any of the other more common ones. But for me, any alienation I’ve felt is from the fact it is such an uncommon thing. People have their hypochondriac moments, but I feel like it rarely gets as intense for them as it does for me, reaching the point where it is actually debilitating in my day to day life.

Q- Do you think the university and the union itself do enough to support mental health and break down the stigma?

A- I think so, Astrid was recently elected on a manifesto where she promised to hire another councillor to the uni. There is a lot of bureaucracy, even at the uni level, and it’s really hard to push these things through. I don’t think it stems from any widespread ignorance from the students on campus and the uni seem to be very aware of things like the Speak Your Mind campaign and the posters they had up everywhere. Any problems the uni does have with mental health support are simply from a lack of funding and a lack of staff to facilitate it.

Q- Finally, what advice would you give to anyone reading this interview who is possibly feeling extremely isolated in their mental health struggle?

A- Talk. Just Talk.

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