Open Book

Hey there everyone!

Oh no, she’s back, what will we do? Well, exams are done with, I can stop panicking and begin thinking clearly again *rousing chorus of Hallelujah.* It also means I can get back to this with a bit more regularity – terrible as it feels skipping weeks, it’s either that or post something that makes no sense AND distract myself from my revision AND possibly have an all out meltdown. I hate the anxiety I get around my exams; I also genuinely need to give the rational thinking portion of my brain a pay rise – by this point it’s earned it.

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So this week, the plan was to talk about Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (which most of you ought to have seen, and I’d highly recommend it if you haven’t) and their autistic representation; however, World Mental Health Awareness Week was this week. Plenty of my friends have been doing cool things for it like webchats and articles and a favourite artist of mine released a music video based on recovery and relapse (here, if anyone’s interested –  I’m not taking any money for publicity, I just think it’s amazing), and to throw in my ten cents, I wanted to talk about books.

*Trigger warnings ahead for mention and discussion of self harm*

Trust me, it makes sense. I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite series this week to take my mind off the hideousness that is my research methods exam; Vampire Academy, by Richelle Mead (Goodreads Link). Before you all roll your eyes at yet another vampire romance fan and completely switch off – it’s not Twilight, it will never be Twilight, it is not even in the same league as Twilight. Fun fact – one main character has depression. Another fun fact – another has bipolar disorder. The way it’s handled here is that their mental disorders are intrinsically tied to the kind of magic they wield – psychic powers. Firstly, I love this because it lends the idea that awesome telepathic and healing powers should have consequences, which isn’t something I see a lot in young adult fiction. Secondly, it brings up a couple of things about mental health which I feel should be pointed out.

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Like many illnesses, mental illnesses and psychological disorders are not asked for. We can argue genetics and environmental stressors all we like, this fact remains immutable. There was a very cool article a few years ago which argued that depression was an allergic reaction to the world; whether there’s any true scientific background to this apart from this one study, I’m not sure, but it’s a very interesting concept. Regardless, neither Lissa nor Adrian can control or change the consequences their magic has, expect by cutting themselves off from it altogether, and this is mirrored in the real world. Regrettably, pills are not the quick fix for us mere mortals that they are for these Moroi, but there are very, very few people that can get out of mental illnesses without help. If you are one of those people, I salute you. But neither of them asked for this, and neither does anyone else struggling with mental health.

The second is the way it’s handled in popular media. The first book of the series (and there are six in total) was made into a film a couple of years ago – Vampire Academy, starring Zoey Deutch and Lucy Fry (can be found on Netflix) and like so many of these things, was really rushed and badly cut and would have been so much better as a TV series – hey, I criticise because I love. I think the biggest bone I had to pick was to do with Lissa’s self-harming, an issue close to my heart as some of you will know. In the book, her harming was a conscious decision, borne of depression brought on by a rare form of magic. For the film it was the same – except they cut out the conscious decision part, and had the cuts simply appear on her arm after magic use. Do not ask me why, to me it makes far more sense the book’s way, but maybe they’re trying to water it down for the poor little kids. Which gets to me.

I’m sure there are disorders where it does happen, but I, personally, have never known anyone with depression who just woke up one day having done awful things to themselves. As a rule, self harm is a conscious decision – maybe not a healthy decision, but a conscious one nonetheless. And I think dumbing it down for the sake of a target audience of young teenagers (13-16), at exactly the age that this could be becoming a concern for them, is a terrible idea. Numbers of under-18s presenting at A&E with self-inflicted injuries are rising (as of NHS figures October 2016), and as with many things, the more we talk and encourage talking about such things, the less this is likely to happen. Painting it as an unexpected consequence isn’t the most helpful thing on the planet; neither is Lissa’s best friend terming her a ‘freak’ when this happens.

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Yeah, I know, the whole ‘talk about it’ thing again. I’ve said before, talking about it is not the easiest thing in the world to do for someone with a mental illness. And why do you think that is? Nobody else will. There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about teaching mental health in schools as part of PSHE (or whatever they’re calling it these days), and I think the more that mentally healthy people talk about it, and the more educated they get, the more comfortable people will become talking about their own issues. All we’re asking sometimes is a listening ear; a recent review quoted in the BPS Research Digest stated that the biggest factor in stopping self harming is family support. So dumbing it down or changing it’s emphasis in books and TV shows and films is maybe not the most helpful thing in the world.

Saying that, I have no idea how Vampire Academy got a 12 rating; mental illnesses aside, torture of minors and dead animals all over the place, anyone? My mum barely let me watch Titanic at that age, never mind Lord of the Rings or similarly violent things. And that was a PG.

Anyway, /rant.

I hope everyone’s had a good couple of weeks, and continues to have a good couple of weeks. One chapter ends, another begins…exams finish, project kicks in for real. Wish me luck.

Stay awesome everybody 😉

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Book

Teacup

 

 

Meet Josh

Meet Josh.

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In the end, it came down to a choice between my mental health and the love of my life.

Those who know me will know that 2011 was a Bad year all around for me. I fell in love for the first time…and then was unceremoniously thrown out of it. My parents finally admitted that they needed to separate, ending a 30-year marriage. Exam results the previous year which had been a lot worse than anticipated meant I was in danger of not passing my A-Levels; not to the standard required for uni anyway. My depression kicked itself into high gear, partly as a result of this but also partly because it had been stewing for two years; eventually that sort of thing boils over and sticks the pan to the stovetop. It’s not pretty.

In the end, had it not been for Josh, that attempt on my own life might have been successful.

A lot of people mistake Josh for my boyfriend when I first tell them about him. He isn’t – he’s my horse. Specifically, a bay hunter-type, 17.1hh mountain of pure attitude. I’ve had him since I was 15. After we lost one horse to early retirement and another to a jumping accident, I wasn’t sure I was ready; a month with Josh and I was positive I was!

In the end it was a simple leap of faith.

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The thing about owning a horse is the routine; horses love it. We give them an ultimately unnatural life. We keep them in a stable or a field with a finite amount of grazing and no way of travelling on to another when the grass gets too low. We ask them to do things with themselves that would never occur to a horse living and running wild. We ask them to trust us totally and as a result they are fairly dependent on us. The horse is a magnificent creature of more brain than you might think. But giving them a routine helps them to relax in this life that we give them, which means we, as their owners and carers, must stick to this routine. Having this responsibility means that I couldn’t simply give up and curl up into a ball under my covers and stay there for ever, as I wanted to. It meant I couldn’t kill myself when I wanted to. When there was nothing left, there was Josh; my responsibility. My anchor to the real world.

In the end, Josh saved my life.

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When I first went to university back in 2011, I wanted to take Josh with me. A quick check of my finances showed this to be impossible. Keeping a horse with a full time job is difficult enough, let alone at university with no car, no money and even less time.

I almost didn’t leave.

Sheffield is a long way from where I grew up. But where I grew up was now a toxic environment for me. And the only thing to do in a toxic environment is; get out. (I can see some people reading this and rolling their eyes, saying ‘it’s not that simple.’ No, it’s not, but that doesn’t mean you should stay regardless).

In the end, my mental health came first.

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I missed Josh like someone had physically taken one of my ribs, shoved it into my heart and left it there. For years, I felt guilty about that choice. Questioning if it was the right one. Abandoning my responsibilities is not something I’m ever comfortable with. But I knew I could no longer live at home, not safely. By the point I moved away I was in therapy, but entering therapy does not mean automatically all your problems are solved. And really, there was no future for me in Essex. So I left him, and I hated myself for it. I was scared; so scared he’d forget me, or hate me for leaving, or suffer missing me.

Five years on, there is not one iota of me that regrets the decision.

In the end, it was the right choice.

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Josh is still around; he’s happy. My Dad and his new partner (who is as horse-mad as I am, if not more so) do a marvellous job of taking care of him – and their three other horses. He’ll never be alone or unhappy. He has his ‘herd.’ He has a routine, a relaxing life in his old age. I see him every time I have the chance to go down. He’s never forgotten me; everyone from my father to the lady who runs the livery yard tells me when I’m around he acts like a completely different horse (yes, ego boost alert, hush). Simply because I have my own life now doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about him. Even my partner has met him, and had a ride.

(He confessed afterwards he was more nervous about meeting Josh than meeting my parents. Mad children that we are).

Some things change as we grow. I am not the person I was in 2011 when I first left home, and whoever is up there looking after me, I thank you every day for it. My connection to Josh, and a love of horses in general, however, is something that will always be a part of me.

In the end, I found myself, and never lost him in the process.

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And in the words of Taylor Swift; “Somehow that was everything”

 

Destroy The Stigma Around Mental Illness

Stigma: a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something, especially when this is unfair

To Stigmatise: to treat someone or something unfairly by disapproving of him, her, or it

Definitions according to Cambridge Dictionaries Online (source link)

 Picture source

Speaking as an almost-ex-depressive (as in, I’m three years out of therapy but the bad days never quite go away), stigmata and stereotypes around mental illness do exist, and I’m willing to bet they are one of the most popular reasons people will not seek help for the condition they have. It was certainly one of mine.

Speaking as a psychology grad, if it hits you, it hits you very idiosyncratically which, as with most mental illnesses, makes it hard to pinpoint. I’m not going to go into massive amounts of detail about what depression is; suffice it to say, it can hit anybody and whether or not you get it generally comes down an unlucky hand of cards – I ascribe to the idea that it’s a combination of family history and the way one reacts to the world.

By this time, many of you will have heard of the crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 in the French Alps on March 24th, tragically killing everyone aboard. It’s since come out in investigations that the co-pilot sent the plane into its fatal descent deliberately. The latest report from the crash investigation states that the co-pilot had been suffering from depression for some years, and had ‘hid this from his employers.’

And with the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses, I almost don’t blame him.

There are careers that require you to be mental illness free for upwards of two years – mostly in high risk occupations such as careers in the Army and the police force. This is not the result of stigma – this is in the interests of personal safety. Anyone seen the bathroom scene of Full Metal Jacket? In careers where they teach you to fire guns for a living, they don’t want the insurance nightmare. Which to be perfectly fair, is understandable (if annoying to be on the other end of – been there, done that, but that’s a story best left out).

Inferring in part from the report, flying is another one of those careers where they like you to undergo some kind of psychological evaluation before letting you fly a plane. Again, understandable if they’re going to let you control a massive metal tube flying 38,0000 feet in the air with hundreds of people on board, supervised or otherwise. But these tests are far from standardised, and because of this, there are calls now for more rigorous, standardised testing.

Which is utter bollocks.

Talk to anyone who’s done a psychology base degree – hell, even a psychology A-Level (or equivalent). They will tell you that there is no such thing as a reliable standardised test, because there is no such thing as a standard mind. As a point of interest, among the first standardised IQ tests were a set of tests created to “scientifically” prove that some people were of substandard intelligence – as in, specifically designed to make them look stupid (see here and here). In the same way, accidents occur, or crimes are perpetuated, in which a mentally ill person is involved. And suddenly everyone with a diagnosis, or the same symptoms becomes dangerous, or incapable, and generally substandard.

A fantastic post by a writer for the Guardian throws it into sharp perspective. I, personally, haven’t noticed any outright condemnation of people with depression in the media – but we wouldn’t, because wouldn’t that cause a public outcry. What we see instead is a very subtle chain of association. The German newspaper Bild calling it ‘his madness.’ The BBC releasing editorials examining screening process for pilots, asking how pilots with mental illnesses slip the system. Talking about his lifestyle and hobbies as though the condition he had was some dark and twisted secret.

As a species, we are hardwired to put people in boxes – it’s a survival thing. It’s when we begin to put people in the wrong boxes, or assign them boxes they don’t fit in, that problems begin to occur. This stigma around mental health issues makes asking for help something of a minefield, and it shouldn’t be. We should spend less time worrying about screening procedures and more time worrying about supporting these vulnerable people through the bad times and out into the better.

I’ll finish on a word from the mental health charity Mind:

“Clearly assessment of all pilots’ physical and mental health is entirely appropriate – but assumptions about risk shouldn’t be made across the board for people with depression, or any other illness. There will be pilots with experience of depression who have flown safely for decades, and assessments should be made on a case by case basis.

Today’s headlines risk adding to the stigma surrounding mental health problems, which millions of people experience each year, and we would encourage the media to report this issue responsibly.”