Thursday, 24 May 2012

Turbulent Indigo: What Does Mental Health Awareness Week mean for Young People?

(Monochrome photos by me)

1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health issue this year. What does this actually mean? Although words such as ‘depression’, ‘OCD’, ‘anxiety’, ‘panic attacks’ and ‘bipolar’ are widely known, the conditions themselves are often misunderstood – treated with a fear and shame not generally attached to discussions of physical illnesses. Perhaps this is because we view the mind as something ‘controllable’, while being educated to expect that our bodies will go wrong. Responses such as “pull yourself together” or, “stop being so selfish” are considered appropriate reactions by some to depression, where it would be entirely insensitive if said to someone with cancer or pneumonia. Furthermore, mental health terms are often misappropriated. Observations such as, “this weather makes me so depressed” or, “he went totally schiz”, (ie schizophrenic) still pepper conversation - lessening the impact and understanding of what these medical conditions actually mean.

The shroud of judgment and lack of knowledge is one of the main reasons for ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ (21st - 25th May), an initiative started by the Mental Health Foundation in 2001, with the aim of raising awareness and removing stigma.

There is no single age group or portion of society that can claim to be the most heavily affected. Businesspeople fear being judged as ‘weak’ if they have panic attacks, and teenagers face a lack of understanding if they admit to peers that they are clinically depressed. But the latter group faces the additional challenge of navigating their way through a mystifying and scary experience with little information provided on how to recognize symptoms requiring specialist help. There are doctor-referred NHS counselling services, and some colleges do have well-being centres or nurses one can approach – but to access any services, the individual not only has to admit that there’s a problem, but also needs to know where to look. Student Jemima*, who recovered last year from a prolonged episode of depression and self harm, observed that,It’s very sad that so many people fear depression and mental illness…. Many suffer alone because they refuse to admit they might not be mentally healthy. People need to learn to understand that mental illnesses are natural. I think that in the UK especially we view depression as a weakness, or something that is the fault of the individual.”

By its very nature, adolescence is characterised by intense change, emotional turmoil and an increasing awareness of future responsibilities. It therefore becomes harder to distinguish between what is merely a feeling of justifiable anxiety, and what is a clinical illness requiring outside help. Although definitions of depression can be found with a quick Google search, it is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of symptoms. Besides, common descriptions of ‘sadness’ and ‘discouragement’ are simplistic. For many, depression cannot be articulated so easily, and is instead identified through emptiness, worthlessness/ guilt, or even a complete lack of feeling. Seventeen year old Daisy* recounted “constantly feeling tired and hopeless - I would describe it as having a tap on my foot and somebody turning it to let all of my energy out.”  It can distort motive to the point where normal activities such as getting out of bed are impossible. It originates in the limbic brain, but the effects may be felt in the whole body – it’s a physical illness just as much as, say, diabetes.

The differences between teenage angst and genuine illness also blur and smudge the impact of depression. On the Internet in particular, it has become not only a misappropriated term, but has been almost idealised in some forums. For example, the glamorisation of suicide in photography makes me distinctly uncomfortable – the re-blogs of bathtubs and blood, or self-harm scars, or Anna Karenina-esque suggestions of jumping under trains. As much as one can understand the compulsion to share or explore emotions and experiences (and we do need to talk about these conditions), self-inflicted death is not a warmly-tinted, film-grained, floaty-dressed event like Sofia Coppola’s film ‘The Virgin Suicides’ - as beautiful as the cinematography is. Romanticising such a traumatic, destructive action is not positive. Relatives on both sides of my family have committed suicide. Climbing a tree to throw oneself onto electric cables is not glamorous. Plunging from a bridge is not glamorous. It's a life sentence for those left behind. It's a last resort, often described not so much a wish for death, but as a desire to stop living. For those of us who have never experienced the completely altered state of mind that drives a suicidal impulse, it is impossible to fully understand the depths of despair and hopelessness that drives it. Therefore, in my opinion, to glamorise it is misguided.

Depression can be genetic, but is often provoked by either a longstanding problem or a major life event. Daisy talked about habitually bottling up her feelings, combined with caring for her mum (who had experienced a period of depression in the past), while Jemima traced the start of her depression back to a difficult relationship with her mother, who divorced her father when Jemima was a baby. Both girls’ experiences of depression are very different, and yet they similarly feel that as a condition it is not tackled enough. School PHSE lessons teach teenagers how to identify and prevent STI’s (on the basis that 1 in 4 sexually active teens will contract an infection), but the fact that 1 in 5 adolescents experience mental health problems is virtually ignored. As yet, there is no programme that has been rolled out nationally to all UK educational institutions. Thus, one way of raising awareness is to talk. Conversation is a vital tool in challenging misinformed attitudes. Jemima said: I can definitely discuss [my depression] with my friends now. I think there is a stigma surrounding depression, but I usually ignore it. I sometimes find it difficult to stop once I've opened up!” Her candour is refreshing. It should not be made obligatory to discuss the inner workings of our health – mental or otherwise – but genuine honesty is an important first step in reducing the ‘taboo’ nature of mental ill health.

See Young Minds for helpful information and support. 

*Names have been changed

This post was provoked by watching a loved family member go through six crippling months of very severe depression. All I can say is that I'm thankful that for some, the complete debilitation can be slowly addressed through a combination of medication and therapy. But, if I’ve learnt anything, it’s that depression and its treatment is different for everyone. 


The Lady Nerd said...

Mental health issues are very very tricky to deal with. I think one of the issues we have today is there is such blanket diagnosis (plural?) given if anything is amiss. I think that there are truly people with mental illness that need to be treated such a severe depression, bipolar disorder, ADD/ADHD, etc. But lately I've been noticing, at least in America, that many doctors are quick to diagnose many people with mental disorders. (They tried to diagnose me with ADD/ADHD when I was younger simply because I had enough energy to power a nuclear reactor! I was 5.) Although I'm not sure how to go about it, I think the mental health profession needs to take a serious look at their practices before diagnosing someone that way they avoid diagnosing those who don't actually have issues and help the ones who do. It's been feeling alot like the 'boy who cried wolf' scenario. I think there are alot less people who truly have mental disorders than are diagnosed. Which, then in turn, makes a society who doesn't truly understand what is means to be clinically depressed, bipolar, or ADD/ADHD. And makes it harder for those who truly have those disorders to be treated correctly.

Very thought provoking post! Thanks for writing it Roz. :)


It is so important to see illnesses you cannot see with the same respect as the ones you do.
I value my piece of mind, and inner calm every single moment, because it wasn´t always there. I took a long struggle to find myself.
Much love my dear and beautiful Rosalind.

olivia grace said...

This is such a well written and thoughtful post, and I oculdn't have put it better myself. One of my very close family members was hugely unwell with a form of depression last year, and it really brought to life how much more there is to the illness than meets the eye, and how important it is that we actually talk about it and try and make a difference. xxx

alexandratherese said...

Found this very reflective as well as thought-provoking Roz. As I expect comments will show, many people will have been affected by depression themselves or experienced a relative or friend's mental illness - though you are right in that it is an issue rarely discussed and especially not in a school environment. I can identify completely with your comment re PSHE lessons; I've had the benefits of healthy eating and the issues of drugs and alcohol drummed into me over the past few years but never once has the topic of depression been discussed or even raised as a valid point for discussion. Clearly our education system is lacking in providing information to teenagers like ourselves and schools are without the appropriate provision to deal with problems arising around issues such as depression, anxiety and self-harm.

You mentioned the plethora of blogs re-posting artistic shots relating to death and suicide; it pains me to see Tumblr after Tumblr depicting such images as if they are aesthetically beautiful; an art form even. Yes, we need to express emotions and feelings - but not in a way as to promote awful mental illnesses such as depression. It has practically become a cult to listen to suicidal music and write about wanting to cut oneself - but simply for the point of attention seeking and it often isn't the people who are actually clinically depressed who are promoting it. It's so twisted and distorted this need to aspire to dramatic cinematography depicting death in such a way. I am so sorry that your relative had to suffer as they did. We can only hope that the very near future brings advances in methods of detecting and providing therapy for everyone who has to go through something so mentally and physically debilitating.

I received your email this morning - will reply soon. Alexandra xx

Christobel Amelia said...

I'm so glad you have written a piece tackling this issue, I still can't really talk about the depression I suffered so it's so cathartic to read something articulating difficult emotions.
For me what is so interesting is how depression manifests itself; it's reading those viewpoints that you've carefully interweaved in your article that make it really touching.
For me I cannot remember much at all. 2011 was my 'lost year'; when my friends ask me what it was like, I honestly cannot describe it. Because my mind has erased parts of my life that are too painful to remember; I liken it, bizarre as it may sound, to when Ginny Weasley was possessed in HP, and there would be huge periods of time where she couldn't remember what she was doing.
I remember 'waking up' though, when I came to university. And my medic friend looked at me, a few weeks in and said 'you've had depression haven't you?'. You have no idea how you must look to other people; but when I hear someone say that depression is another one of those fabricated adolescent fads, I feel very angry.I really hope that in time it will gain proper recognition.
Only today I was feeling so well in the sunshine, and then you hear someone has thrown themselves on the tube tracks. And scarily, it is said with indifference.
You look beautiful in your photos by the way.

daisychain said...

What a wonderfully written post m'dear, as someone who has battled with her mental health for 10+ years, it's only now that I'm not afraid to speak about it and raise awareness.

The world needs more people like you

xo said...

Thank you for your post drawing attention to a much misunderstood and often stigmatised issue.
As someone who has struggled, watched friends struggle and who works in the field of youth work, I am glad to know that there are people out there like you making a stand to spread the awareness.

Anyhow, I also think your blog is great too, will be following from today.
Take care,

Anupriya DG said...

Mental illnesses are indeed deemed much more "scary", "taboo" & "unacceptable" than physical ones, even in today's civilised world. Even though we all are educated & claim to have a general knowledge & belief of Science, still, this ridiculous antipathy towards mental diseases almost contradicts that fact.
Of course, as you say, a person who has not gone through the pain & frustrations of a depressed mind, will never really know how it feels. In fact, it's even more unbearable & unfathomable than the physical pain of any illness.
But yes, awareness, social acceptance & proper understanding of mental illness can definitely make the world a better place to live in for the troubled minds.
And we only have to do that. After all, it's our world...isn't it? :)

P.S.: LOVE the black & white shots.....

On The Fence said...

Roz, I simply cannot believe the timeliness of your post today. I just got back from my second therapy session in which I'm finally coming to terms with the fact that I have dysthymia. Admitting this does not make me happy. I want to be someone else, someone positive and productive. But your essay once again reminded me that I am not alone in my struggle, by any means. Perhaps in my case the only way out is in. I need to finally admit to myself the truth about what I'm fighting before I can begin to work myself out and away from it.

So thank you so much for addressing this serious subject. Imagine that today, of all days, I was met with the term "Mental Health" on a site that usually greets me with bright eye-candy. As it is said, coincidences are God's way of speaking to us. It seems today God used you, Roz, to speak to me. I'm not surprised he picked you, considering what a fantastic person and a true inspiration you are.

Thank you so much again,

Jean at said...

I could write volumes on this subject. Without going in to detail, I pray that the stigma of mental health issues is gradually lessening. My ex-husband was diagnosed bi-polar after I had to leave our marriage of 19 years. It's tragic and impacts generations.

Your photos are evocative and disturbing, as they should be. This is an important post.

Thrifted Shift said...

Thank you for this post. Depression is indeed different for each person who suffers from it. I recently learned someone dear to me deals with multiple personality disorder as a result of years of abuse. The human body and mind have amazing survival mechanisms.

Willow said...

I found this a very thought provoking post, many people aren't aware of the seriousness of mental health problems and I have found that a lot of people aren't always sure what to make of it. As someone who has seen the struggle of people that are close to me, I can certainly understand how misunderstood that pain is.
I don't understand why mental health is ignored in school lessons - especially when sometimes depression can be a cause of lack of exercise and sunlight, as well as too much exposure to radiation from mobile phones and laptops..and I imagine a lot of kids wouldn't know that.
Like fighting in the war, it's a very traumatic thing that has been romanticised and I have increasingly seen a lot of this suicide and pain in films and art - being made, like you said, glamorous.

Thank you for posting this, and the photos are beautiful.

Melanie said...

Your photo of flies on the window really captures the sense of depression. I hope that more articles like this one will give depression and mental illness the focus they deserve. You are right - there is nothing glamorous about jumping from a bridge. I also wish mass media would dampen its message that a constant state of elevated happiness is normal. That is not real life; reality TV is not real life.

Maxens M. Finch said...

Hi, I rarely comment and most of my comments were under another nickname, but I really like that you try to raise awereness and it is really touching since I often have panic attacks, ED myself and am a teenager. (I've also some other "problems" that I don't think of as such.) I noticed a lot just plain don't understand, which can put you in some violent situations, even with your family and what happen during your panic attacks, or how you feel, you're not supposed to tell other people like with other problems (physical illnesses, missing the bus, whatever), it's not something you are supposed to talk about even if others might be comfortable. It is somehow a shame on your family.
When you for example write this, it helps making people more knowledgeable about it and they may realize some things they never thought about before... Making the world easier for everyone.
It also feels like some sort of additional support to your readers; they know some people are more knowledgeable and/or understanding than others they might have met.
Thanks for this post!

Katrina said...

The photos are gorgeous and i thank you for writing this. As someone who struggles with mental health problems, i can really appreciate this insightful and real article.


Fashionistable said...

As always thought provoking and very strong. I was thinking of your feelings while reading this knowing the challenges your family have faced this year. I can also see how this can be so overlooked in teenagers as it is naturally an angst ridden time it makes it much more difficult to spot. Also as you rightly say a lot of teenagers (and adults) will say 'I'm depressed when they are only feeling down or not getting their own way. I think glamorising any illness is weird. Thank you. Xxxx

Maria said...

I can't help but see the same delicate lines and rich colors on your photos and on the paintings of one of my newly discovered favorite local artists. As if you were one of her models came into life and made her enchanting images real.

There is something about the atmosphere you both create. Your work convey some subtle yet powerful feminine charm. Your photos command attention in a delightful way. I couldn't help, but view the first photo of your entry and this particular painting side by side:

Can I ask for your permission to link your above mentioned photo to my blog?

There are several of your photos and of her paintings I could match and view this way. That makes me smile. One could make an exhibition based on these similarities.

Penny Dreadful Vintage said...

Thankfully things keep getting better, but there is still certainly a stigma attached. I've always tried to be open about the fact that I've had depression, numerous bouts of counselling, and am on anti-depressants, because I think the more people who are honest about this stuff the better, and the more socially accepted it will become.

Penny Dreadful Vintage

Hope Adela Pasztor said...

Great post! I love your detailed thought and precision towards deep, non-fashion related issue. Beautiful contrast of the blue and yellow! =)

Vix said...

I don't think I've yet met someone who hasn't been affected by mental illness yet it still remains such a taboo subject.
Your photographs, particularly the iron bed and the rain-splattered window bring back very vivid memories of my own struggle.
You are not only beautiful, stylish kind-hearted and artistic but wise beyond your years. x

Maria said...

I wonder that just how much poor eating habits and lack of sunshine contribute to the onset of depression.

I am convinced that depression is too broad a term.

Katia Pellicciotta said...

This is such a well worded, opinionated yet not arrogant article which I think is so admirable, especially considering the subject.
I totally agree that mental illness needs to be 'de-stigmatised' (yes I made that up). People speak of mental illness with sympathy, sorrow and sometimes even pity, but I don't think people (particularly teens) understand how real it is; it's spoken about as if it's something 'they' have, over 'there'. This only makes it more difficult for those who have to suffer in silence, often in painful denial.
An incredible article.

Katia Pellicciotta said...

Sorry, and in response to the Lady Nerd's post:
there is a really good video to watch that agrees with that perspective. It is by an education and creativity expert, who believes that we too quickly shun creative or different kids as having mental problems, and go on to discourage and kill their creativity, by standardizing everything. Really worth watching, this is the link:

100%soie said...

wow, the first picture is so fascinating !! this green colour is very mysterious on you !!! and the black and white pictures are beatiful too, I love this post, as always !!!

SabinePsynopsis said...

These are such lovely portraits of yours, Roz. My problem with 'mental illnesses' is that they are named and categorised which often seems more restricting than liberating. xoxo

The Foolish Aesthete said...

I think you have captured the sense of isolation mental illness carries in your photographs. I've had/have several dear, loved ones go through very difficult periods. It is also difficult to watch and feel powerless to help, particularly when they themselves judge their own behavior as weakness and refuse outside help. Wishing you and your suffering loved one strength, and effective assistance. -- J xx

Clara Turbay said...

i like what i see here i´ll be back soon!

Sublime Mimesis said...

Gorgeous pictures and a great blog, can't believe you're only 17! :)

Kelly-Marie said...

Rosalind this post has touched me beyond belief. I have had to deal with depression running through my family for years. It is scary when you start to talk about it with other people and you find that so many of them have been through it too. Atleast, like you said, we are all talking about it. I think this post is so important, your blog is so well loved and your voice reaches out to people from all different ages and walks of life. Good girl for raising awareness on such an important issue. You are an inspiration.