Today marks the last day of Mental Health Awareness Week, and so this month I want to use Culture Corner as a space to help break down the stigma that still surrounds talking openly about our mental health. We speak so freely about our physical health, but barriers need to be broken down so this is the same for all forms of health to ensure people get the support they need.
I want to share some inspiring stories in the hope that it will encourage us to speak more freely to others when we need to. As a sufferer of a mental illness it’s a topic that sits particularly close to my heart. Most people I know have either had their own experiences or know someone that has been effected, so why is this something we find so difficult to address? I particularly want to highlight that more of a conversation needs to be started around men’s mental health – because there’s even more taboo surrounding this even though suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK.
A little about my relationship with mental health
I feel like it would be dishonest to share other people’s stories without first disclosing my own. When I was studying for my GCSEs I was diagnosed with bulimia. I was at a very low point in my life and everything completely engulfed me and overwhelmed me: relationships, the pressure of schoolwork, the way I looked.
It was like I had been chewed up by things that were out of my control and spat back out, and the only way I could regain some sort of power was by taking charge of what I ate. When I looked in the mirror my vision of myself was completely skewed, and I couldn’t find anything I liked. I was obsessed with being ‘skinny’ and it infuriated me that I wasn’t. I became addicted to using fitness apps to count my calories and if I thought I’d eaten too much I’d bring it back up. This escalated majorly until I was eventually throwing everything up.
I am very lucky to have a supportive family and network around me, who encouraged me to seek help before it was too late. I started seeing a specialist once a week but, while this did help, ultimately it was on me to decide I wanted to get better.
My mental health has come on a long way in the last few years, but there are days I still struggle with my body image and feel myself slipping back into my bad old habits. This is usually when I don’t look after my body and mind properly.
I find going to the gym at least twice a week, eating as healthily as I can and not comparing myself to others is the best medicine in my case, but this doesn’t always go to plan because life gets in the way sometimes (and that’s ok). I try to surround myself with people that lift me up and care about my wellbeing so that I know I can reach out if I’m struggling, and cut off anyone who makes me feel negative, and to spend as much time with my family as I can.
Instead of listing parts of my body into things I do or don’t like, I speak positively about myself and focus things on the amazing things it can do. I can run 5k, I can dance all weekend at a festival, I can write and cook and hike. I’m an eating disorder survivor and I’m so proud that I can say that.
Fashion as a force for good
In an ideal world, mental and physical health conditions should be spoken about as equals, so I wanted to shed some light on a physical condition I have only recently become aware of, because one incredible woman has had the courage to speak openly about it on social media.
I had no idea what Neurofibromatosis was before a story appeared on my feed from Arooj Aftab, encouraging followers to sport a green and blue outfit on Friday 17th May, in honour of Neurofibromatosis Awareness Day.
Arooj has Type 1, which causes tumours to grow along her nerves. Her baggy style has made her popular on Instagram (the outfits she shares are amazing) but the reason behind her oversized look is mainly the tumours that grow on her body. Luckily they are not cancerous, but can still cause her pain.
The fashion influencer is using her love of fashion to spread the word about Neurofibromatosis, and is aiming to style as many green and blue outfits as she can throughout May.
“I’ve always expressed myself through fashion, I want to use my platform to do what I love but also raise awareness on my condition at the same time. The support so far has been incredible and I don’t think I would have got through it without the encouragement of others.” Arooj told me.
“I want to be as authentic as I can on my platform and inspire others; I don’t want to be a person people wish to be like, I want to be someone people can be like.”
Arooj’s campaign has really opened my eyes to a condition I initially knew nothing about, and I was overjoyed to share my own blue and green outfit to support this cause. Her attitude is so inspiring, and so is her style! Arooj is supporting Childhood Tumour Trust and Nerve Tumours UK through her campaign.
If you’d like to find out more you can watch her BBC documentary, My Tumour Made Me Trendy, here.
A huge inspiration in my life is my friends, and the strength and resilience they have taught me. My best friend has experienced a tough journey with her mental health, and her ability to carry on is truly fucking sensational and seeing how brave and courageous one person can be fills me with the utmost pride and awe. Below is her story.
“Mental health can be a bit of a minefield. As much as I believe in the importance of creating awareness around it, its often easier said than done. Stripping yourself bare infront of your loved ones and the entire internet is daunting and its sometimes easier to just keep it to yourself, and that’s ok.
“Its ok to not feel ready to tell the world your struggles and admit your vulnerabilities but I feel its my duty, as a survivor, to show that you do not have to be ashamed.
“I am a survivor.
A survivor of self harm.
A survivor of anxiety.
A survivor of depression.
A survivor of domestic abuse.
“To this day, the battle still remains to fight the urge to just stay in bed. My head often still swims with the weight of simply swinging my legs out of the covers onto solid ground, and some days I don’t win that fight, but I wont let it beat me.
I am a survivor.”
A warrior woman
Mental health illness in any form is a difficult challenge to navigate, but I cannot begin to contemplate facing multiple battles throughout my life. This story is from a woman who I particularly draw on as an inspiration when I am feeling low, as her determination to get better shows how much we all have to live for.
“I don’t find writing about mental health very easy, it’s so close and raw. You have to be vulnerable to allow yourself to sit and acknowledge what you actually feel and think and usually I keep so busy as a way to avoid going there and facing these demons which lurk in the shadows.
“For me it’s been depression and anxiety since moving to London as a newly married women in the 90’s but as a child, a second daughter, I remember feeling misunderstood and unheard by parents and teachers, loosing my confidence more and more and living under my older sisters shadow.
“Having children of my own was the most joyous, fulfilling, purpose driven time of my life, exhausting but wonderful! My daughters are the two things I am most proud of and they have kept me going during the darkness times.
“In my mid 40’s anorexia struck, struggling to accept myself, wanting to shrink and disappear, not feeling I had any worth or purpose. Gradually through a course of Dialectical behaviour therapy over a period of 18 months and using strategies to keep on track, I am now recovering well. I know to avoid any triggers and any early signs of things reoccurring can be nipped in the bud quickly.
“I now meet regularly with a dear friend for a coffee and an honest catch up once every week or ten days which is vital and keeps my mental health and well being grounded.
It’s not easy, it can be extremely isolating and lonely, frustrating and exhausting too, sometimes I would rather just break a leg, it mends, you heal and you get on with your life whereas anxiety and depression are always close and a constant battle to be kept in check. To be vulnerable and honest is tough but usually once you allow yourself to open up and be real people are willing to listen and support.”
If you need to reach out…
I sincerely hope that if you are looking for a way to seek help, these stories have shown that it’s ok not to be ok, and that there is always someone willing to listen to you, and that there will always be light at the end of the tunnel. Below are helplines for continuous support.