Talking about your own mental health is not easy. In fact, when you are suffering from a condition such as anxiety or depression, talking about your problems can seem like the most difficult thing in the world. Yet, if you are suffering from poor mental health, you are encouraged to “open up” and talk to others. Indeed, talking about your problems is widely regarded as being the first step to recovery. If talking is so important, why do we all feel prohibited from doing so? What is stopping us?
For me, my job as a senior lecturer at Abertay has made talking about my mental health just that little bit harder. Not because I think I would not be supported by the University or colleagues but because I’m in a position where I need to project competence and authority on a daily basis. Opening up to my students and being vulnerable is not something that is in the job description.
However, now that I’m approaching the end of my career, I feel that now is the time to start talking about my struggles with my mental health. That’s why after some encouragement and persuasion from a colleague I decided to accept an offer to host an online talk about my experience to mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 at Abertay. Talking about my problems in such a public way is a very daunting prospect and not something I think I’ll enjoy doing. However, I hope that by speaking out, I encourage other people who are suffering to start talking about their own struggles and seek help.
So, what will I talk about? Well, as with most stories, my own starts with my childhood. Both my parents were psychiatric nurses and mental health was frequently a topic of conversation at the dinner table. From a young age, I had a good knowledge of mental health disorders and what would happen if you didn’t take care of yourself. At weekends I volunteered at the psychiatric hospital my parents worked at so you could argue that I was exposed to the perils of ill mental health very early on. In my household, there definitely wasn’t a stigma around mental health unlike the majority of households, and society in general, in those days.
Some might say that then begs the question: if my family were so open about mental health, why have I struggled with it for most of my life? To answer that question, I should first explain a bit about my condition. I was first diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, or GAD, when I was 21. GAD manifests as excessive and exaggerated worry about everyday life events. It’s a tendency to catastrophise absolutely everything for no obvious reason. Part of my illness also involves an overbearing sense of failure which sees me constantly pushing myself to do more, to work harder, to be better. I think this is the main reason why I’ve always been reluctant to talk about my own mental health – the perceived sense of failure that comes from admitting that something is wrong, and you need help. As well as GAD I’ve had brushes with PTSD (following a life-threatening illness a few years ago) and depression. I’ve never really spoken openly about these illnesses, not even to professionals.
One thing that has helped manage my condition (though not something I’d recommend to others) is throwing myself into my work. That is my main coping mechanism. The theory is that the busier you are, the less time you have to internalise and worry about random things. All my adult life I’ve been a workaholic and I think some people thought this was driven by ambition or a desire to be successful. The truth is my addiction to my work is borne out of an intrinsic need to keep busy and concentrate on absolutely anything other than myself or my problems.
Fast forward to 2017 and that desire to focus on others is what led me to get involved in local politics and stand for election to Dundee City Council. I saw the people suffering in the community and as well as hoping to help solve their problems, I saw it as another opportunity to focus on something other than myself. Being a councillor is the perfect job for someone like me: as soon as you’ve sorted one problem for a constituent, another one comes in. It really is a non-stop job where you are constantly focused on improving the lives of your constituents. Politicians, particularly at a national level, often say that being involved in politics and all that comes with the job has a detrimental effect on their mental health, but for me the reverse is true. I think that if I didn’t have two high-pressured, demanding jobs then my mental health would be far worse.
For as long as I can remember I’ve always been interested in politics but it was the 1993 Timex industrial dispute that really politicised me. I was a shop steward at Timex for a number of years and was latterly chair of the strike committee during the dispute. That was a really tough time for the workers and I credit that dispute with igniting in me a need to help others.
When I was deciding whether to accept the offer to host an online talk about my struggles, the very few people I told in advance asked me if I was considering doing so to encourage other people to start talking about their own mental health. I’d say that is the main factor in my decision to do the talk but I also hope that by opening up about my own experience it demonstrates that mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter if you have a successful career, a loving family, money in the bank – mental illness can affect anyone. I’m living proof, no matter how well I’ve hidden it.
Looking ahead to my talk, I do think colleagues and students be surprised to hear about my struggles. Every single person in the University thinks I’m an extrovert but the truth is I’m really an introvert – it’s all an act. Over the years I’ve learned to mask my troubles. Indeed, it’s often said that lecturing is like acting and that’s certainly how I approach teaching. Like actors, teachers have a message to convey which is best communicated by incorporating skills such as animation in voice and body, use of suspense and surprise, role-playing, and humour. I even finish every lecture by telling my class: “Thank you, you’ve been a wonderful audience.”
Now that I’m coming to the final chapter in my career, there is the temptation to let the mask slip, to show the world the ‘real’ Charlie, warts and all. If doing so helps demonstrate the importance of talking about mental illness, then I’ll consider that a job well done. As for my own mental health, I’ve been told many times that there’s often a certain catharsis about being open and honest about your struggles. I guess we will find out.