With the exception of a “golden” period during my final years of my employment in the civil service, I have been left to fend for myself in the miserable world of poor mental health. For much of the time, I haven’t fended very well. But I have somehow managed. Day upon day, year upon year of being unable to concentrate and retain information, I feel I have become a brilliant actor to the extent that many people have either not noticed or perhaps assumed that my demons are small beer. Only now, with my future well behind me, have I opened up, firstly as a kind of confessional and secondly to encourage others to come forward, if only to tell their GPs. I am not sure it is a good thing to always tell the boss.
Over the last decade or so, I have tried to be honest about the way I am. Any idea of having a decent career had long gone and there was nothing to stop me “coming out”. Sometimes I wonder why I bothered.
My family and true friends understand the effects of depression and anxiety. They know that it is quite possible to be very happy for long periods whilst suffering from mental illness. They are two very different things. I am not happy one minute and wallowing in a pool of self-pity the next. I am happy and sad at different times, I am always ill. Is that so hard to understand? Oh yes.
I have learned, and continue to learn, about the sheer ignorance of people who I feel should know better. There is, without doubt, ignorance and a lack of understanding about all mental illness, to the extent that even today sufferers are still expected to just gone with life, pull themselves together and to be treated in exactly the same way as everyone else. You would, rightly, make allowances for someone with a physical disability and/or condition but as for mental health, well get over yourself. All of this is why I so much value the decision of Prince Harry to go public on his own problems.
My view of the royal family has been simple: I cannot see the point of it. Although the Queen is the head of state, she has no real power. The royals go from place to place, shaking hands with people, cutting ribbons and waving. And that’s pretty well it. Then along came Princes Harry and William.
I was, frankly, amazed when Prince William and Princess Kate put their not inconsiderable weight behind mental health campaigns. This is Big News. I do not think they have changed the national psyche, but they have managed to put the subject into the national debate, so it’s a start. It will take years, maybe a generation, to change attitudes, to bring about change, but change has to start from somewhere.
The worst thing about the understanding of mental ill health is when people who do not understand it think they do, talking about the terrible stigma of mental health and then, by their subsequent ignorant actions, entrench it. I can excuse some of my earlier managers because I grew up in an era where mental health was the discussion about “funny farms”, “lunatic asylums” and the “madhouse”, but some of the more recent ones. In Bristol, you could expect to be sent to Barrow Gurney, the legendary mental hospital where, it was believed, the patients were wrapped up in straightjackets and confined to basket-weaving from dawn to dusk.
Harry described his life as being “total chaos” and how he came close to a “complete breakdown” on a number of occasions until he sought the services of a counsellor. Harry’s public confessional moved me like no other royal has moved me before. Quite seriously, I believe he has shown courage of the highest order, to open up on a subject about which there remains such profound ignorance. He looked into my world, and the world of the many millions whose lives continue to be ravaged by poor mental health, and he made the subject legitimate. If it was okay for Harry to speak out, it was okay for everyone. If only that were true.
In the most unlikely of environments, as I have discovered to my cost, the ignorance and stigma remains and if anything things are getting worse. I know this is hardly a ringing endorsement of the idea that people should open up but this is the world in which I live. My own life has been made immeasurably more difficult by a world in which mental health treatment is the Cinderella service in the NHS. It’s a luxury, not a necessity. Pull yourself together.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I’m having to go back to my GP yet again and if you are ill, then so should you. But as I never tire of saying, be careful who you tell. I am even considering the possibility of trying to register myself as disabled in order to secure equal, not special, treatment; that’s how bad things have got.
Prince Harry’s intervention may not be game-changing because, as we know, today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, but I am humbled by it. Just imagine a member of the elite, privileged, super-rich having a better understanding of mental health than Joe and Josephine Public. That’s exactly what’s happened and I’m very surprised to see myself in the same sort of world he inhabits.