Do Mental Health Awareness Days Actually Work?

Do they raise awareness or just give an opportunity to talk about how ill we are?

This year during a tsunami wave of Awareness Days for various mental health causes I found myself conflicted. As a blogger I feel almost obliged to write a summary of my story, list diagnoses and maybe share a selfie in aid of the cause. It’s what I’ve done previously along with many other bloggers, so why not this year?

This year I feel a bit sceptical over how much good some of the awareness campaigns are doing. In particular I think any social media campaigns on such days should be looked at carefully. I see a lot of people sharing their stories of mental illness in statuses and people who also suffer commenting on or sharing them. The mental health Twittersphere is enormous and very tight-knit. Sharing makes individuals with mental illness feel less alone, which is fantastic, but the message is not reaching far outside of the mental health community itself. Online communities are so important for supporting those with mental illness. On events like World Mental Health Day how do we spread the message to those who aren’t looking for it? 

According to TV Licensing 68% of the UK usually eat their evening meal in front of the TV. I’m really disappointed to not see any major documentaries shown to mark World Mental Health Day. A documentary on a major channel during prime time that someone not clued up on mental health might catch on a whim, would be really effective. Assemblies in schools which all students, mental health savvy or not, have to sit through. Big public events that  a stressed or distressed passerby might stumble across. These are great examples of awareness raising events. It is so important that we target those who don’t already know about good mental health.

There seems to be confusion in distinguishing between ‘mental illness’ and ‘mental health’- with some even using the terms interchangeably. On a mental health awareness day surely we should be stressing the health. Mental health and illness are not the same thing, in fact they are opposites. On an awareness day of mental health we should ideally see more articles and posts about how people keep, or try to keep, mentally healthy. Messages of encouragement, things that helped during struggles, symptoms you might feel too ashamed to seek help for, resources, support services. There is, after all, much more to gain from learning how to be mentally healthy than sharing what happens when you are not.

On social media are we being a little bit self serving? And is that a bad thing? Several Mental health tweeters responded to my call for a discussion on whether these days actually do what they say on the tin. Some even find the days overwhelming due to the influx of mental illness/health posts.

@bordeline_OK: "I worry that any "x day" ends up highlighting difference, not improving parity of care/esteem, not destigmatising, not removing barriers."@OCPDme: "On this account, the tsunami of MH awareness tweets was overwhelming."

@gerbillady: "Maybe on social media it enables people with mental health difficulties feel less alone. Depends what you mean by work."@WhiteCaneGamer: "If it takes a million tweets just to help one person who needed it, then let the tweets fly."

@AshleyCurryOCD: "Overall does it make impacts on improving access to right help and support from local servicesI think @AshleyCurryOCD sums the situation up well. Does it make an impact on improving access to services? In most cases no. I think our attention needs to shift to this as a goal. We should push for mental health to be a subject everyone knows about and make sure there is help so that everyone can gain it. We should support those with mental illness and treat mental health with the same urgency as physical health. People should be able to share their stories whenever they need to. There should be a day for mental illness awareness and visibility for people to learn compassion towards people with mental health problems. Days for awareness of individual mental illnesses are a fantastic idea and they should be just as well supported as the bigger events. Mental health is so important, and how to gain it should be public knowledge.

“Young People Hearing Voices; Suffering, Inspiration and the Everyday.”

I’ve blogged already about the ‘Listen Up!’ workshops for young voice hearers which I was lucky enough to take part in. All the young people from workshops previous met for one last time in Durham to finish their pieces ready for exhibition. Without further ado, these amazing pieces can speak strongly for themselves…

Thank you so much to the Wellcome Trust and Hearing the Voice for giving time and space to simply be.

The finished pieces and more will be on exhibition from the 5th of November at Palace Green Library, Durham University.

Source: “Young People Hearing Voices; Suffering, Inspiration and the Everyday.”

Listen Up! Workshop #2- Pieces and Reflections

You might have seen my previous blog where I expressed my joy at going to a creative workshop especially for young voice hearers

I was absolutely over the moon to get an email saying that due to the high demand there would be one more workshop at Art Link Leeds. 

The amazing Mary Robson came prepared with canvases and mirrors to make one of the ideas from my book into a piece of art. I was (with safety precautions taken) given a mallet and some mirrors to smash. 

On the first canvas I wrote in between the glued on shards a Groucho Marx quote: “Blessed are the cracked for they let in the light”. I have always found this a really inspiring quote- no matter how damaged or cracked you get in this world, the light will still come through.

The second piece was more personal. My reflection (literally) on trauma, illness and affirmation.

“The pieces stay together because they have to. They don’t work together quite the same though. We are all still me, we just got splintered into other things too.” 

It was great to meet up with Rai, Mary and the two other participants again. Smashing mirrors was highly therapeutic; and I’ve decided it isn’t bad luck as it is for creative purposes! Next stop- the exhibition in Durham! 

Mental Health Communication Cards

A few months ago I did some work with Hannah Ensor of Stickman Communications to design some communication cards specifically to help people with mental health problems.

Hannah is amazing and one of my favourite people to throw ideas around with. She is very patient and willing to consider anything no matter how ‘Out There’ it may be. I was honoured to be consulted about these cards. 

The new cards in the Mental Health range include: 

  • “I think I need a hug”
  • “I don’t feel able to talk right now”
  • “I have depression…” (+description)
  • “I don’t feel safe right now”
  • “I have an anxiety disorder…” (+description)
  • “I have a condition which means I see the world differently…”
  • “I don’t feel able to talk right now”
  • “Please may I talk to you?”

Plus the poignant: “Cuppa Needed!”

These cards are incredibly handy and provide a quick way to indicate how you feel or what you need. I find that they are really useful if you want to discreetly make someone aware that you need some extra support. They are also great for explaining what would help on an ‘off’ day. I have a lot of cards from Stickman Communications split between two lanyards, one for home use and one for in public. Hannah has so many amazing cards in her shop that are helping people deal with a huge variety of different medical conditions.

I’m hoping that this could be the start of a great partnership between Stickman Communications and Upside Down Chronicles to get helpful products out there for people with mental health problems and other invisible illnesses.  

What would your ideal card say? 

369 Days

Two years ago I was in the back of an ambulance.
I waited in A&E for my turn.
I got out 369 days later.
That’s a bloody long turn.

In the first six months I learnt:
That they could physically restrain me,
They could drug me,
They could detain me,
But I would survive.

I could survive:
Violent patients,
Being forced to eat,
24/7 surveillance,
and my heart would still beat.

After the tyranny freedom was elected.
I was no longer an animal- held down and injected.
I found that words made me lighter,
Each time I said or read them I shone a little brighter.
My talents lay in living not dying
and every step forward is a person I’m defying.

Once it is broken the glass does not fear the floor.
Tell me I shan’t.
Tell me I can’t.
I’ve heard them all before.

A Creative Workshop for Young People Who Hear Voices or See Visions

If you read my last post you will know that recently I have been on a mission to find other people, particularly young people, who see visions and hear voices like I do. It was while googling for voice hearing and the arts that I came across Hearing the Voice. It just happened that in browsing the site I found that they have been running workshops in order to create an art exhibition called “Hearing Voices: suffering, inspiration, and the everyday” at Durham University. They are aiming to create two cases for the exhibition- one of young people’s experiences of voice hearing and vision seeing and another of what young people would like others to know about these experiences. All of this will be portrayed through the arts.

So to Leeds I went and (joyously dodging roadworks) I arrived at Artlink. The two co-ordinators were lovely ladies; Mary Robson (a creative facilitator) and Rai Waddington (who has experience of voice hearing and provides training on the subject). There were also two other young participants and, funnily enough, one had travelled all the way from my home city! The other two girls had also been to the workshop previous but were incredibly welcoming. The group started with a discussion on what hearing voices is like and the unhelpful things people have said to us as voice hearers in the past. The notes speak for themselves.

"Aren't they just imaginary friends that never went away?" Don't use the fact I hear voices to back up your beliefs. They've got sanity around them like a bubble, they don't get as hurt as we do. "Oh we all have a voice inside our heads!". "You'll never have children".

"You're mental" "Just ignore them" "Have you tried eating kale?" Voice hearers don't always do what the voice is telling them. When you are really hurt by people you just talk to the voices and do what they say. "It's like Butlins but bonkers". "Voices don't change who you are". You are just attention seeking.

What really stuck out to me during this discussion was how little people understand us. How we are constantly having to explain ourselves or even defend ourselves. Whether it is an underestimation of our ability, a snide comment or an off hand ‘suggestion’- people’s responses can really hurt. To talk to strangers who experience the same as me was amazing and hearing someone else say that they know what it is like for reality to not make sense at all sometimes was extremely validating. To meet complete strangers yet share such personal experiences is a very powerful thing.

I believe arts can change everything for people with mental health problems and I believe it fiercely. This belief grew when I saw the things people had produced when given the materials. Mary provided everything under the sun you could possibly need in a creative flurry- wooden boxes to decorate, tiny blank faced cloth dolls, sharpies and stencils. We were also given a brown scrapbook each. Later Mary said: “These aren’t just books, they are time and space to create and simply be”. How true that is. The fact that this lovely book had been gifted to me by these lovely people, who know and understand that I’m this misfit person that the arts can soothe, was amazing. So for the next two hours we all worked on our books, drawing and writing poetry about our experiences.

The workshop was amazing. I could have stayed there forever and I cried several times at the pure ‘wow’ of it all. There was chance to talk to the lovely Rai 1:1 and her story is living testament to the fact that people who hear voices can still fly high. I’m likely going to meet with Mary again to turn one of the ideas in my book into a physical piece of art. Everyone in the group is planning to go and see our work at the final exhibition at Durham in September. I’m so glad that I found this project, purely by chance, in time to take part. I am however intensely aware that these opportunities are few and far between and for every person who found the workshops there are many more who did not.

We need more places like this. Places where you can be with people who understand you and who share a common interest in creating. The work we did as a group had an impact on us all and I think the session was a real game changer for me. I feel stronger than ever before that having access to the arts can help people with mental health problems. I am certainly going to find a way to fight for this for everyone who needs it.

Is Anybody Out There? The Support Group with One Member.

I hear voices. I don’t say it often, but I do. There are voices and characters who I can see and hear that you can’t. It’s sometimes scary, sometimes comforting but it is always isolating and confusing. I’ve not properly met anyone who experiences hallucinations before. Not knowingly and certainly not for a sit-down chat about how on earth they survive this thing.

When I was referred to the local support group for voice hearers I was intensely nervous. Hovering in the hallway of a dingy community centre that smelt like a mixture of damp and table polish a man approached us. He was in his seventies and walked with a stick. “You’ve got the wrong place love. This is bingo.” Sure enough the main hall appeared to be filled with elderly folk dabbing bingo sheets. After a while of trying locked doors a woman appeared and ushered us into one of the rooms with an air of secrecy. There were models of ships on every side board and the room looked like we had accidentally stumbled onto the set of ‘Dad’s Army’. The woman’s name was *Rosa and she was a CPN. She told me in hushed tones that this week it seemed I was the only attendant of the support group. Trying to swiftly move on but jarring slightly she added: “Voices. What’s going on with those then?”. What a conversation starter.

The next week I was really hoping to meet a voice hearer but after half an hour of waiting it looked increasingly unlikely. After several phone calls to the team’s office it seemed that not even an organiser was going to turn up this week.

For the next two weeks it was just myself and not one, but two organisers. *Dana, was also a nurse with a degree in voice hearing (something that I didn’t know existed). She accompanied Rosa and seemed equally friendly. As they eagerly told me that there had been ‘as many as’ five people in the group in the past; I began to wonder if they experienced hallucinations and delusions themselves. Yet another week passed and in the absence of real life voice hearers they gave me names of ones to research like Eleanor Longden and Ron Coleman. They assured me that I wasn’t alone. This was really hard to believe given that I was the only member to turn up for the support group four weeks running. They encouraged me to go to an official Hearing Voices Network group in the next city to continue my search for real life people.

I was so nervous. This time I was almost guaranteed to meet a voice hearer in the flesh. Nervous anticipation had built up in my chest. This group was reportedly very well attended and had been for several years. I didn’t know what to expect. Do other voice hearers scream and shout like they do in films? As the car stopped outside I prayed there would be no screaming or wailing. When I took a seat in the circle of chairs facing the centre I realised the obvious: the people opposite me were just people and they hear voices. Like me.

The meeting started and I was FULL of questions to ask. “Does anyone else find that distraction technique can be really exhausting? Do other people’s voices get angry if you talk about coping strategies? Am I weird for not wanting to become compassionate with my hallucinations?”. Yes, yes and no.

It felt so good to meet real life people, some managing to work regular jobs and many having been in hospital like I have. Men and women, young and old. I learned that every week the group was facilitated by a rotation of psychologists and they followed rules to ensure the group was a safe place for all. I really enjoyed the group, though, as predicted, the residents of my head were angry that I went. They hate being spoken negatively about.

I hope I can go again, I just need to stop my head talking me out of it. As the lone member of my local support group I feel obliged to keep going. 1:1 care, let alone 2:1 care, is hard to come by in the NHS and as they are funded until December I may as well soak up the support. Plus if someone else does show up, at least I will be there!