Richard's story

After my first contact with health services for my mental health at 15, I never, ever expected that, over 30 years later, I’d be writing these words and talking openly about my experiences, but here we are….

Since I was a teenager, I’ve suffered from depression, severe anxiety (often resulting in crippling panic attacks), and low self-esteem and self-confidence. This has, over time, affected every area of my life; you can never escape from your own brain. However, my attempts to escape led to developing compulsive thoughts and behaviours, plus a long, long list of unhealthy coping mechanisms, and all the problems and fallout that came with them.

Despite all this, I tried to pretend that nothing was wrong, and was (on the surface) succeeding.

I was successful at work, and living what appeared to be a good life; travelling around the world and doing lots of exciting and adventurous things. But inside, I was fighting with myself every day. I had repeated visits to doctors, counsellors, support groups, etc., but soon after each, I’d do my best to convince myself that I didn’t need any help, that all my problems were of my own making, or because I was weak, or because of some other failing on my part. I looked at my friends, family, and colleagues, and couldn’t work out why I seemed to struggle with everything so much, while everyone else appeared to sail along just fine.

It wasn’t until I suffered a breakdown in 2017, that I finally admitted to myself, and others, exactly how bad things had got.

What followed was hospital admissions, being unable to work for a couple of years, and often struggling daily with, well, just being alive. And yes, I did try to change that; more than once.

As I started the long, slow process of recovery, I began to learn more about mental health problems, partly to try and understand my own situation and experiences. One of the things that really struck me was the effect of stigma, and how it had affected me throughout my life. I experienced this from those around me, in that my mental health problems were either minimised or never really acknowledged until I reached that crisis point.

But what was most shocking to me was how much my own internal ‘self-stigma’ had prevented me from accepting there was a problem, or accepting any sort of help.

As someone growing up when I did, and from the background I had, mental and emotional health wasn’t really talked about at all, but if it was, it was in very negative, judgemental, discriminatory ways. And I was petrified of what would happen if people found out what I was going through. I’d convinced myself that my life would be over, that the sky would fall in. But I’d gone beyond the point I could hide things any longer….

I made the decision to be honest about my mental health difficulties, partly as a way to remove the (imagined) power that they held over me, and the first step towards that honesty was by talking about things. That was a huge, important step for me, but it was a chance to say, “This is what's happened, this is what's been happening, and I now understand that it's not my fault and I shouldn't feel ashamed of it”. I finally started to accept that I wasn’t inferior, or ‘less-than’, or any of the other awful things I’d felt previously. No one should feel any of these things.

Guess what. None of the terrible things I imagined happened. Most people have been kind, compassionate and supportive.

But not everyone. I have experienced stigma and discrimination from some people, including from some areas that surprised me, such as doctors and other people in healthcare. This is why programmes like See Me are so important.

We need to get to a point where mental health care is given parity with physical health care, and where people aren’t afraid to be honest, to tell each other how they feel, or ask for help when they need it. Things are improving, but there is still a way to go. But I think we’ll get there.