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When it comes to your mental health, here's one the question for which the answer must be 'yes'

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Emma Roddick.
Emma Roddick.

I firmly believe that people from all walks of life talking openly and honestly about their mental health, whether ill or well, is a necessary step on the route to destigmatising the issue, writes Emma Roddick.

I’ve talked a lot about my own mental illness and, in the last decade, seen public understanding and awareness grow.

However, in 2020 – the year of isolation – it’s clear we’re not getting there fast enough.

Harmful stereotypes about those of us with serious mental illness still exist.

There’s a presumption that we’re difficult; to be friends with, to employ, to treat. That we can’t have a good career, or enjoy ourselves.

It’s important to start with an appreciation that those of us with mental illness don’t just exist in films, books and hospital beds.

We aren’t that clichéd, unwashed character with no aspiration or hobbies – we read books, book holidays and shout at the telly in the pub when there’s no way it was a foul.

I cannot count how many times someone has disclosed that they’ve chosen to get in touch with me for assistance – even when others may be better placed to give it – because they’ve seen me speak out about mental health.

They tell me they know I’ll understand and they trust me not to treat them differently. It’s not that they thought any other particular individual would be judgemental, but many of us have been so traumatised by previous interactions that we have learned to expect the worst from people we don’t know.

We all have similar stories. Employers refuse to make reasonable adjustments, demand intimate details about our illness and allow us to be bullied by colleagues.

Organisations misunderstand our needs, decide themselves what’s best and get it wrong, leading to exclusionary practices. Even health professionals can seem disbelieving and dismissive, and our physical health complaints are often put down to a trick of anxiety.

It can be very reassuring to know that a person is not about to judge you and I’m glad that speaking openly has allowed others to approach me with trust as their councillor.

We need to encourage that confidence in each other more widely.

With winter here in what has been a difficult year, many are suffering – and it’s not just the mornings which are dark.

The lack of sunshine, social occasions and even the ability to smile at a stranger in the shop without being impeded by a face mask, turns our thoughts and feelings to a gloomy place.

When we consider risk factors for developing mental illness, trauma is top of the list.

For most of us, lockdown was a sudden, massive disruption to our routine. It exposed many people to levels of depression, anxiety and isolation that they had never felt before.

It was a shared trauma and we’d be daft to think that it hasn’t introduced a risk of developing mental illness in people who may otherwise have remained healthy.

This is important not only in terms of adding pressure to already-crowded services and an extension to years-long waiting lists, but because it means there are people living with depression and other illnesses who have no pre-existing support network in place – nor any experience forming one.

Many who did have a network have seen it ripped out from under their feet.

Psychology appointments have been cancelled, friends and family have been unable to meet up, and peer support groups have cancelled meetings or moved online, out of reach to many.

It’s important to realise that, particularly right now, you could be the first point of contact when someone close to you is beginning to realise that they may be unwell.

In 2021, nobody should be afraid to ask someone for help in case they react badly to the words “mental illness”.

So, I encourage you to check in with others, speak up about your own health, and ask yourself – “would a friend, colleague, or family member be comfortable speaking to me about their mental health?”

Make sure the answer to that question is ‘yes’.

Emma Brodick is a Highland Councillor and mental health campaigner. She was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and reflects that more still needs to be done to break down the stigma

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