Mental health and the challenges around it have always been very close to home for me. Not necessarily in a negative way, because I have learnt a lot from it, but those around me, and often those close to me, have experienced it first hand. The important thing to say early on, is there is absolutely no shame in that. Having feelings and emotions, and struggling with them is completely human, and sometimes facing those struggles is inevitable.
If I’m honest, I’ve been trying to decide whether or not to write this blog for quite a while now, not because I think it is going to be controversial or problematic in any way, but because having come on quite a difficult journey and having gone through some very difficult times as a result, I like my blog to be positive and talk about the fun and happiness that is experienced through being a parent. However, although some of the context may be negative, it comes with a positive message. This is something I have only started to believe myself recently, which in a way, means I really want to pass it onto others that may need to hear it.
So what is this message? In its simplest form? You are never completely alone. To elaborate on this, it applies even on the days when all seems lost or hopeless, when you’re stuck in the darkest recesses of your mind and it feels like there is no way out. In those moments it is so so hard to see it, to believe it. I know the feeling well because I have been there, over, and over, and over. Yet it is true, you are never completely alone, not if you don’t want to be, and most people in crisis don’t want to be alone, not indefinitely. Yes we all have days where we are fed up with the world and want to be left to our own devices, and that’s fair enough. What I’m referring to is people in a personal crisis, who feel worthless, uncared for and disconnected from the world, for whatever reason they have reached that place, and probably not by choice. I’m not just talking about depression, because mental health can be affected by many different things. Anxiety, bereavement, financial difficulties, family issues, bullying, discrimination, the list goes on. All these things can put a person in a very difficult place, and can often result in depression or feelings similar to it.
To refer back to the title of this blog, and to get onto the real reason for writing this. I have through my own recent experiences, been pretty shocked by the lack of mental health awareness by certain services.
To put this in context, I haven’t been in work since the 22nd August due to a rapid and unforeseen increase in my social anxiety and decline in my mental health. There had been things here and there that now I’m more aware of how anxiety works should have been warning signs, but I just didn’t think anything of it. On my breaks at work I had been purposely seeking out places where I knew there would be no people so I could avoid any social interaction. I had been waking up hours before my alarm went off worrying about going into work and a room full of people. All these things happened very gradually over about 2 months, so I thought nothing of it. However, in the two days before the 22nd August, being at work became almost unbearable; I was counting the minutes until my next break so I could just get away from all the people, and it became exhausting. Eventually the thought of going into work terrified me and after a phone call into work, that felt incredibly challenging, I managed to explain that I wouldn’t be in work that night or the next.
After a long weekend at my Dad’s, and a very long conversation with him, it became clear I wasn’t in a good place mentally at all. This is where I knew I had to put things in place to set it right again. Unfortunately, this saw the start of a blatant failure and lack of awareness around mental health issues by my GP, and by some other services too, this ultimately lead to the continued decline in my mental health.
First thing Tuesday morning I was on the phone to the Wellbeing Service, a service put on by the NHS to assist people in dealing with their mental health. Sounds great, right? Well yes, the concept is good, but as with everything that is public sector it is vastly over-subscribed. I had quite a lengthy conversation with a psychological health advisor, and credit where it’s due, he did a very thorough and comprehensive job, and helped me feel at ease when talking things through. Sadly, that had absolutely no bearing on the outcome. This adviser agreed the best way forward was to attend a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) course, to help me learn how to manage my anxiety. The downside? There’s a waiting list of at least 12 months. At this point I felt like I had completely wasted my time, I had spoken about my feelings and emotions to someone who was no more than a stranger, and got nothing for it other than ending up feeling pretty stupid and reluctant to put the time and effort into talking to anyone again. That said, I did get offered two introductory sessions to CBT in early October. It would be a group session, in other words, a room full of strangers, no thanks. However, I said I’d go, hoping I’d feel up to it by the time October came around.
The next phone call I made was to my GP, I honestly shouldn’t have bothered. I called up asking for an urgent appointment, without being asked why or what for, I was told quite resolutely that there were “none available” for that day. The surgery had been open 20 minutes. I asked if I could see the duty nurse, it was at this stage I was asked what for. I started to say it was around anxiety, but I was quickly cut off, the response I got was “she can’t help you with that”. What a brilliant thing to say to someone who was feeling anxious enough about calling as it is, and who at this stage thought very little of themselves. I gave up at this point, told the receptionist not to worry and hung up. The next day, I did the same. I asked for an urgent appointment, without being asked why, got told there were none available. The surgery had been open 10 minutes. I was told I could have an urgent call back from a duty doctor, so I hung up the phone and waited. Around 3pm I got a call from a doctor from a different surgery that I had never heard of before, at this point I couldn’t see any reason to continue the call. Two minutes and thirty seven seconds later, I had vaguely explained what I was struggling with as best I could, and I had been booked an appointment. In 9 days time.
I called the GP again the following day, asking for an urgent appointment, same answer. This time I got offered a telephone appointment that would be between 10am and 4pm. “Better than nothing”, I thought, and went with this. 4pm that afternoon I hadn’t heard anything at all, but I had a missed call from an unknown number, so I called my GP. I was told that the doctor hadn’t tried to call me yet today, but that she would call me as soon as possible. 5pm, still nothing. So Lore called the GP. She basically asked them what the hell was going on and why I hadn’t been called as promised. Apparently this doctor was on a ‘home visit’, and they didn’t know when she would be finished, but she would call me as soon as she was available. Lore challenged the receptionist on this, and made it quite clear that this wasn’t good enough. The woman on the end of the phone was completely unwilling to take any responsibility or actually do anything helpful. Lore explained that we were in town, and near to the surgery, if there was someone that could see me that afternoon (the surgery was open until 6:30pm). She was told that there was no-one that could do this, and that I wouldn’t get an appointment on Monday either. It seemed that no effort was being made to see what could be done, or even attempt to understand my circumstances. So, after being let down by yet another person, we gave up for the weekend. This left me wondering how they would ever identify someone in a mental health crisis if they never used any form of effective questioning or showed any interest in getting someone the help they need.
After this, I had no interest in speaking to my GP again, because they were pretty useless, it seems unless you’ve got a physical injury or illness that one of the receptionists can actually recognise, you’re better off talking to a brick wall. Instead, I put my own things in place, I went back to FACES, and spoke to them about the place I was in and how I was feeling. As always, they were great, incredibly supportive and understanding. Once again the level of support from them was stepped up, and they were around if either of us needed them. There was a point where I was really struggling and one of the practitioners from FACES knew this, and was texting me every day to check I was alright, and I knew that was a person I could took to if I needed to, but also a person who wouldn’t mind if I chose not to talk.
The appointment that was 9 days away eventually came around, and Lore came with me. I said as much as I felt comfortable saying, and the Doctor I spoke to was alright, but I felt like he had been told the things I was saying so many times, that it was ‘old news’ and he wasn’t really interested. Either way, I had been able to talk about things to some extent, and came away with a prescription for anti-depressants. I wasn’t against this, but apprehensive of it at first, I suppose I’ve always seen them as giving a ‘pretend happiness’, making things appear fine when they aren’t. Lore explained it to me in a different way though, that it helps level out how you feel, leaving you better equipped to start working through the difficult stuff, and I’ve seen it this way ever since. From my understanding, these sort of things need a follow up appointment, because of the medication, and because of the reason I was there, but I had no such thing arranged.
Once again, I tried relentlessly to get an appointment to see a doctor, but with no luck at all. Thankfully FACES had continued to be supportive. I was really struggling with making phone calls, into my GP, to work, even to my own family. This is what they were able to help with. I had a particularly difficult week mid-September and on one weekend found myself in what would be called a ‘crisis’. I spoke to someone at FACES the following week, and she was great, she made herself available that afternoon so I could go in and speak to her and she also made a phone call to my GP to arrange an appointment. The earliest appointment I got was still about a week away, but it was better than nothing.
I’m glad to say, that particular appointment was exactly what I needed it to be. I was able to talk honestly about how I had been feeling, how I had felt when I reached crisis point. I spoke about the effects of the medication and how it had and hadn’t helped. I came away with all the paperwork to sign me off work that I had been waiting on for almost 3 weeks, an increase in the dosage of my medication and a follow up appointment for a month’s time. I had no idea why that had been so hard to get up until this point.
I suppose what I’m trying to say, is up until the GP appointment I mentioned above, I was shocked and disappointed by the lack of awareness and understanding by the receptionists, and some of the doctors around mental health. The way I was spoken to, and the things that I had said to me, like being told ‘they can’t help you with that’, when asking to see a nurse. When Lore called the GP, she made it very clear to them how much I needed the help and to be seen, and she was in short told that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.
It is very fortunate that I had the support of Lore, my family, of FACES, and of my work, who have all been amazing. It does make me worry about those who don’t have the support of other agencies, have a family that can rally round, or support from work colleagues. If someone in mental health crisis, who didn’t have any support around them, was told that they couldn’t be helped, or that there was no-one available to see them, that person could find themselves in a very negative or desperate place, much like I have done.
I work for the Police, and on many occasions I have taken calls from people in crisis, who are calling the Police as a last resort because they want to end their life. I once spent an hour on the phone to a woman who wanted to commit suicide because she had lost a court case to get a restraining order against her violent ex-husband. I stayed on the phone to her until a police officer turned up at her door to give her the support she needed. My question is why is that necessary? It seems that there is overall failure in the ‘early-help’ services, such as GP surgeries, to recognise and be aware of people struggling with their mental health. Many times over I found myself wondering if there had been any training given to these receptionists I was speaking to on how to recognise someone struggling or to question them effectively to give the support that is needed.
However, I have learnt that although there may be failures by certain services and agencies, there is support out there, from charities such as FACES, such as Open Door, or MIND, through employers, Occupational Health and so on. There is stuff out there, and if you want, and need the support, it will be there. Unfortunately, I found that out the hard way, but the help is out there.
I am due to go back to work in just under a week, something which I have been so nervous about, but because of the brilliant support that I have received from all those mentioned above, that now feels possible again, and I’m looking forward to it. I still have counselling every week, and I still take the anti-depressants daily, and I’m not too sure how the return to work will pan out, but that doesn’t bother me, and all of that is because there is support out there. It may not come from the places it should, such as the GP that you have been told to go and see, or from the staff at A&E who I have been told over and over will help me in a crisis (don’t get me wrong, they do an amazing job dealing with hundreds of other things!). Support might not come from where you expect it to, it might be an old friend, or a meeting with a stranger, but it is there. I work with so many people that I can guarantee would talk to you for as long as it took to make you feel okay again. Not just because it is their job to, but because they understand, they get it, and want to help. If you called 999 in desperation and got me at the end of the phone, I would not end that call until I knew that you were going to be alright.
There is always help, there is always hope.