You Don’t Have To Be Mad

In the wake of the news that the UK Government is to spend an extra £400m on treating patients with mental health problems in the NHS, Twitter has been in confessional mode today. Under the hashtag #WhatStigma, courageously started by actress Rebecca Front, users have been tweeting their experiences of mental illness in a bid to show others that having a mental health problem is not unusual, funny, or something to feel ashamed of, or guilty about.

I have been lucky in my life so far; although there are days when I wonder if I might be teetering on the brink of depression – days when I have no energy, want nothing but to stay in bed with the duvet over my head, and listen to a constant internal monologue about how useless and terrible I am – for the most part, they do not progress into longer periods of gloom and I am able to function normally at work and at home. I assume that most people have days like this, and have never felt the need to seek medical help.

Please don’t think, though, that I subscribe to the ‘pull yourself together’ school of thought. Far from it. Depression is a real illness, and I’ll tell you how I know.

When I was a teenager, both of my dad’s parents were admitted to a mental hospital. At the same time.

My grandma had always been a ‘nervy’ person, and always seemed very fragile. As she got older, we became concerned that she was losing weight and didn’t seem to be eating properly (I remember her claiming once that she and my grandad had had ‘a proper cooked dinner’ – on further questioning, this turned out to have been an egg on a slice of toast, their only meal of the day). This progressed and gradually started affecting my grandad too. Eventually, when my grandma – an intelligent woman in her late seventies who had worked for a living and successfully raised a family – weighed less than 5 stone, both of them were admitted to the local mental hospital having finally been diagnosed with severe depression.

This was not just my ‘feeling a bit down’. This was awful, head-banging, gibbering, hair-pulling mental torture, with regular talk of suicide as the only possible solution. And the conditions in which they both found themselves did not seem, I have to say, conducive to a swift recovery; they were placed on separate but adjoining wards, with a visitors’ room between the two, in a Victorian hospital building which seemed to have changed very little since its original patients were straitjacketed there. I can still picture the visitors’ room, because whenever we visited, it was filled with other patients who seemed far, far more disturbed and ‘mad’ and who seemed to be dragging my lovely, sweet grandparents down into the abyss alongside them. The visits were always things to be dreaded; my parents and I would arrive only to be asked “What the hell have you come for?”, and spend the next hour sitting amongst the formica tables with nothing to say while my grandparents sat rocking and crying in their plastic chairs.

Somewhere among the hopelessness, though, something must have worked: a few weeks after they were admitted, they were able to leave hospital and find care in a residential home. They never set foot in High Royds again, and although my grandad died a couple of years later, my grandma, the frail old lady who we thought had had her foot on the proverbial bar of soap for the best part of thirty years, only died in 2005, at the grand old age of 97.

The fact that I am able to write this now, and share it with strangers, makes me realise that some things have changed where mental illness is concerned. At the time, I remember feeling embarrassed about what had happened to my family, and keeping it to myself at school because I couldn’t bear the prospect of being ‘her with the mental grandparents’. Times have changed to the extent that I have very few qualms about telling their story now.

But some stigma clearly still exists. Note my use of the words ‘confessional’ and ‘courageously’ in the opening paragraph. Neither of them seemed out of place when you read them, did they? Hopefully, one day they will look as ridiculous in the context of mental illness as they would if I was using them to talk about someone with a cold. I hope that day comes soon.

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~ by somethingblonde on February 2, 2011.

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