Mini MH series : Post 4 -The invisible disability of Mental Illness

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In this post, I discuss mental illness in some detail so before you read on, please do so with caution/self-care steps in place or avoid if you are mentally struggling. Remember, my inbox is always open on my Instagram and via e-mail: hashtagstomabags@gmail.com. I will also include mental health support links if you scroll down to the end of this post. Please remember that the views in this post are my own only. I am not a professional and am in no way giving concrete advice. If you are worried, it is always best to consult a medical professional/someone you trust.

What is a disability?

Disability means different things to different people, therefore is a term best explored with sensitivity. Disability as a wide term is difficulty performing certain functions or activities in daily life. The term “disability” doesn’t necessarily mean “disabled”. For example, some people may find they can hold down a job but still may struggle e.g. with their energy levels.

What is an “invisible” disability?

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Now you see me, now you don’t! Having IBD/a stoma is an example of something that can be classed as “invisible”, as well as mental illness.

People with visible disabilities can also have invisible disabilities. The term “invisible disability” can be classed as an umbrella term for a number of conditions but is usually used to define something that is not immediately apparent. Invisible illness symptoms range from person to person but can often be debilitating, such as pain, dizziness, fatigue, and impairments such as cognitive, hearing and visual. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is classed as an invisible disability & can significantly impact daily life and is just one of many chronic illnesses that fall under the invisible disability umbrella. Unfortunately, a lot of people struggle to understand what they cannot see & their negative reactions to this are not invisible, as highlighted in Crohn’s & Colitis UK’s Not Every Disability Is Visible campaign and also in Pelican Healthcare’s Be The Change campaign. Stigma can actually make invisible disabilities seem more invisible & it is vital that we encourage more open dialogue on such matters which in turn can contribute to greater understanding & awareness in society.

 

Mental illness as an invisible disability – “What have you got to be sad about?!”

According to research carried out by Mind, approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.

Sadly, this statistic is hardly surprising in today’s society with ever-increasing negativity from routes such as when social media is wrongly (& tragically often) used as a negative and toxic platform. The news very recently of Caroline Flack taking her own life has hit a lot of people & is something that resonates with me very deeply suffering from mental illness myself. It is so tragic & something just has to be done now to stop things such as this happening.

I have suffered from mental illness for a number of years including depression and moderate to severe generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). This can, and does, come as a surprise to a lot of people as I am a self-confessed expert of “covering it up”. I can, and 99.9% of the time do, come across as a bubbly, confident, young woman with an “everything is fine” attitude to the outsider. Acting like everything is fine is a skill a lot of people have unfortunately mastered who suffer from mental illness, even on days where it seems near impossible. “Why?” you might ask, to which I could explore a lot of answers, but personally feel a lot of this comes down to stigma that still surrounds mental illness in today’s society with it not being something always apparent to the eye. Something more apparent could be a plaster cast for a broken arm. Usually, a lot of people have little issue expressing concern into what caused the need for this & even sometimes express their concern more obviously such as scribbling a “get well” message on to the cast itself! Maybe if we treated mental illness more like more physically apparent conditions, over time support for mental illnesses would be better, and as a consequence, we may develop a society where mental illness may decline or can at least be dealt with more effectively.

With mental health, there is often a stigma that someone “should be happy” because they have everything “on paper” to be so. If only things were that simple and things could always be that way. We only have to look at numerous celebrities suffering from mental illnesses and some, unfortunately, who have been taken from us due to mental health, to hold evidence to argue against that ignorant assumption. Saying things such as “what have you got to be sad about?” are about as ineffective and insensitive as it can get, even if they may not seem it, and have no purpose but to serve to make the person with the condition feel worse. The pressure of “I should be happy but I’m not” can actually make a mental illness feel much more intense & lonely & actually worsen the situation. When I’m in the midst of depression, I find it extremely easy to develop tunnel vision & compare the inside of my life to the outside of someone else’s. If you haven’t got anything nice to say, then the general rule is to not say it at all. If in doubt, don’t say it, but instead offer words of support & reassurance, such as “I know it may seem so lonely right now and I may not know how to help, but just be reassured that you are not alone, even if it may feel like it.” Often, people aren’t holding out for someone to fix them. A lot of people simply just want someone to hold their hand and sit under a blanket in the unpleasant, emotional storm with them whilst they ride it out themselves.

Mental illnesses, such as depression, rob you of the ability to be able to feel joy, think rationally & logically. They can also rob you of interest in life.

Are mental illnesses becoming more common?

After doing some research, the prevailing focus on mental illness seems not to be that they are increasing significantly in the UK, but more that positive coping mechanisms are not as effective/as widely implemented. This is backed up by the numbers of people who sadly resort to self-harm and/or suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide or wanting to take your own life) increasing in recent years. This is influenced by a number of things such as social factors, financial factors & treatment accessibility limitations/options.

What can I do to contribute to a greater understanding of the invisible disability of health conditions such as mental illness?

First & foremost, it’s important to understand that you don’t have to fully understand someone’s situation to provide support. You can put more positive measures into action in general, such as looking out for those around you by “checking in”, even from time to time. Checking in more can definitely help if you have noticed a change in someone’s behaviour. Trying to develop a greater awareness for the wellbeing of those around you (if you haven’t already) can, in turn, contribute towards a wider understanding & acceptance of invisible disabilities in society generally. Being more self-aware can have a knock-on effect to the greater understanding of invisible disabilities in the sense that if you have more understanding of how your own actions do or may affect others, then you can be more vigilant for changes in the behaviour/needs of others around you.

Ways you can help to discourage stigma can vary depending on the environment, but some places to begin your focus can be in the workplace (even in a small way such as making a colleague a warm drink), between family, friends and loved ones and even in the wider community.

Another contributor towards a better understanding is to help educate yourself, and maybe even others, too. There are plenty of free resources online for mental health (as an example). Websites such as Mind, as linked previously in this blog post, books & even just encouraging an open dialogue with others are all good ways to do this.

It is vital to remember that mental illness is not a “one size fits all” condition. It is different for everyone therefore it is important to try & remain patient, unbiased and sensitive to others, especially those who may be struggling mentally.

Concerned about someone? Know when to intervene

Are you worried about someone? Have they been acting out of character? The following indicators around depression and self-harm may help to spot when you may wish to intervene:

  • Pushing others away/wanting an abnormally considerable amount of time alone
  • Talking about death/dying themselves
  • Reluctance to talk about the future and make plans
  • Increased (& often more severe) mood swings & changes in personality
  • Increased alcohol or substance use
  • Expressions of feeling trapped/inability to see a way out
  • Saying “goodbye” with more meaning/emotion than usual

Worried someone is in immediate danger?

  • If you are worried someone may act on their thoughts, try and encourage them to go to A & E. Accompany them if this is possible.
  • If someone has acted on their thoughts (or you strongly feel they may have) and they are in immediate danger e.g. taken an overdose or are losing a lot of blood due to self-harm, call 999 immediately.
  • If you are able to, remove access to alcohol and any items which could be/have been used for self-injury. However, do this with caution. If you are fearing for your own safety, stay somewhere safe and phone for police and ambulance services.
  • Encourage dialogue with the person, but do not pressure. Be patient and reassure.
  • Remind them that they are not alone, even if you may not understand exactly what they are going through.

Sources of support for mental illness in the UK

  • Samaritans website – or call 116 123 for free. Whatever you’re going through. 24 hours a day. 365 days of the year.
  • Mind – information and support
  • CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) – Leading a movement against suicide, the single biggest killer of men in the UK aged 45 and under. Call 0800 58 58 58/webchat for support 5pm-midnight 365 days of the year or support via online resources anytime.
  • The Blurt Foundation – Increasing awareness & understanding of depression – They have many resources (a lot of which are free) online, including crisis plans and self-care advice.
  •  Time To Change – Mental health help & support services

Join me next time for my final part in my Mini Mental Health series. This will be surrounding my personal struggles with mental health & coping mechanisms I have found to be of use to me in daily life.

To view my other posts in the Mini Mental Health series, follow the links below:

  1. Mini MH series – post 1: What is mental health & what does it mean to different people?
  2. Mini MH series – post 2: Mental wellness & mental illness
  3. Mini MH series – post 3: Dating: Mental health & stoma talk