On World Mental Health Day, SoA's Bryony Hall opens up about her experience with mental health, stigma and how it felt to finally get help.
For me, one of the toughest things about mental illness was trying to hide it.
I’ve suffered with anxiety on and off since my late teens, but my first extended episode took place after I had been offered my first job in the publishing industry. After months of unpaid internships and temporary jobs, all that work and perseverance had paid off and I didn’t need to worry anymore – so I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so unbearably tense. With distance, I’m now able to draw parallels with physical illnesses such as a cold or flu which only strike after you have finished a sustained period of work or achieved a goal and then allow yourself to relax (my teacher friend complains that the first few days of any holiday are always spent ill in bed). But at the time, I couldn’t explain it to myself. Nor could I see a way out.
In my free time, I’d go for long walks – if I was moving, the knots in my stomach would untie, the pressure from my chest would temporarily release and I could breathe. I went to bed early – if I was asleep, I couldn’t feel. I hid the extent of my illness from my partner, my family and from my new workplace. Eventually I went to the GP, but I failed to impress upon him the intensity of my mental distress and unquestioningly accepted that there was no funding available for any kind of treatment in my case.
I know now that the effort involved in trying to conceal my illness only helped perpetuate it. I was constantly afraid that people (particularly my colleagues) would find out that I was feeling this way and would judge me for it. I assumed that they’d think I was weak, or that I couldn’t be trusted with work. That I’d lose my job over it. And that I was the only person who felt this way.
If only I’d known that I wasn’t alone. Mental health issues are common, with approximately one in four people in the UK experiencing difficulty each year. In England, one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week. Yet the latest Mind Index survey found that only 24% of respondents reported disclosing their poor mental health to their employer. Mental health is all too often still considered a taboo subject, but Mind – along with organisations like Time to Change – are working to change that.
In the end, I was lucky. After about six weeks, the fog lifted of its own accord and I could start to enjoy life again. But not everyone is able to get well without help, as I was to discover for myself with my second serious episode, this time whilst working for the Society of Authors.
Following a panic attack, I fell into a spell of anxiety which lasted, on and off, for months. Constantly trying to keep my illness secret only added frustration and shame to my already taxed mental health, and each day seemed a daunting obstacle to overcome. The sense of reprieve as I left the office was always short lived. Eventually my anxiety reached such a pitch that I couldn’t hide it any longer and broke down in front of a colleague. At that point, I did seek help, talking to my GP and (after many months on a waitlist) receiving some sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). But I wish I hadn’t left it so long.
Help is there
If you’re suffering with poor mental health, get support. Trying to hide it can exacerbate what you are feeling, and generally speaking, the sooner you seek help, the easier it can be to manage your illness and begin to recover. The SoA website has a dedicated page of resources which lists various support services and charitable organisations. Your community is there to provide peer support: various Tea & Talk sessions are taking place across the country to mark World Mental Health Day, and we hope to run similar events in the future.
Finally, I hope that this blog has illustrated that being open about your mental health with those you need to tell will not hold you back, both in your career and your personal life.
Illustration © WindyNight
You can find out more about the SoA’s support and advice around wellbeing, finance, contractual and other issues at societyofauthors.org/help.
About Bryony Hall
Bryony advises SoA members on publishing contracts and issues, and is secretary of the Educational Writers Group (EWG).