Rachel Kelly began her career as a journalist and spent ten years on the Times. With a long-standing interest in mental health, Rachel now runs workshops on how to achieve good mental health and is an ambassador for SANE and a vice president of United Response. Rachel contributes regularly to newspapers including The Times and The Daily Telegraph on mental health and is an experienced public speaker due to deliver a Tedx talk in May 2016.
I would love to write that the stigma surrounding mental illness is dead and buried. But I’m afraid that’s not true. When I published a memoir entitled ‘Black Rainbow’ about my experience of debilitating depression in 2014, I found the opposite to be the case. People kept telling me how brave I was. Saying I was brave implied I had something to be ashamed of.
Two years later, while the stigma hasn’t gone away altogether, I do feel it has certainly diminished. There is more openess about mental illness. In February, David Cameron was the first serving Prime Minister to ever mention the topic in Downing Street. Mental health is now covered regularly in the mainstream press and the Sunday Times and The Times have been campaigning to improve the provision of NHS services for those who suffer.
I am hopeful that things will continue to keep changing, just as they did with cancer. We can all remember a time when cancer was a similarly taboo topic of conversation – ‘the C-word’ was spoken about in frightened, hushed tones. Because it’s crucial that we do learn to be open about mental illness. Hushing it up will not make it go away any more than hushing it up made cancer go away. More than that, I’ve found being open positively helps.
Through my workshops which I run for mental health charities including Sane and Depression Alliance, I have found that simply talking makes people feel better. Internalising our feelings exacerbates and magnifies them. We feel we are at fault, that we have brought mental illness upon ourselves. In short, we are ashamed.
But if we can open up and talk more easily about mental health and learn to share our experiences, then we can start to recognize that being unwell is not our fault. Mental illness is just that – an illness like any other. Talking can go a long way to mitigating the feelings of guilt that can preoccupy our minds. When we are unwell, something has, quite simply, just gone wrong with our brains – just as if something had gone wrong with our liver, or our knee.
Like any illness though, mental illness does happen in a context. We can affect that context. We can take back some control by talking about our mental illness, by getting outside of ourselves and giving voice to our own innermost feelings, and taking steps to improve our diet and to take more exercise, both of which hugely affect mood. How can we get better if we don’t openly acknowledge we have a problem in the first place?
My past experience of debilitating depression has taught me above all that I was not and am not alone. In the past I felt my depression was my guilty secret. It is my belief that vocalizing our experiences can begin to give voice and reason to this crippling illness. The most rewarding aspect of writing about my experience of mental illness has been the messages of support I received from people grateful to realize that their own experience was not peculiar to them. We are, after all, all human.
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