‘It’s ok not to be ok’. I can’t remember when it started, but it certainly picked up steam. It’s now the standard social media friendly, I support mental health awareness tag line. I know it is well intentioned, but increasingly, it doesn’t ring true.
Of course, in theory, it is true. It is normal to experience mental health issues. It’s fine to admit that you struggle. It is important to normalise mental illness. If you say it out loud, I am not ok, what happens next? If you’re lucky someone listens; someone cares. Maybe they ask what you need. Perhaps you get that help. The first time. Maybe.
What happens when the person you tell has no idea how to respond. What if you spill your guts to a doctor who doesn’t take you seriously. Or who does want to help you, but only has waiting lists to offer. Around 70% of those referred for mental health assessment in Scotland wait at least 18 weeks*. That’s a very long time to feel helpless, especially when there is no guarantee of treatment. What do you when the not ok doesn’t go away? Or if it keeps coming back? You try really fucking hard to be ok. You do the therapy and the meds and the hard work. It takes a long time. It’s gruelling and painful. All the time you know lots of people aren’t getting any treatment. You feel guilty that your receiving assistance that others aren’t. Even more so when the help hasn’t helped. You’re aware that the people who love you are scared. Your hurt hurts them. They want ‘ok’ as much as you do.
And you want it for them. When it slips from your grasp it’s harder to say it again. People have their own lives. Sometimes they might be struggling. Or they may be fabulous; enjoying some well deserved happiness. Everyone has stresses and responsibilities. Our lives keep us busy with the good and bad. Everyone must earn a living, manage their relationships, have fun. Who wants to be the person who complicates that? Not me.
When you’ve already done everything you’re supposed to do it’s hard to know how to banish the cloud. If the expert advice doesn’t do the trick how can well meaning friends help? Even when you really want to reach out there’s always an impediment. You don’t want to add extra strain when they’re in trouble. Nor do you don’t want to darken joyous life events. Sharing begins to feel less a problem halved & more a problem spread.
Very few mental health problems are a simple fix. None of the big issues in life are that black & white. When you fall back into the grey it’s terrifying. Especially when you know you’ve already had your shot. Ask anyone who has tried to access mental health services after discharge. It’s almost impossible. Drs will say you aren’t sick enough for referral. The NHS lacks the resources for early intervention. Access to talk therapy is limited. Almost 40% of those who received treatment reported that they did not have sufficient sessions**. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is by far the most frequently offered intervention. Not because it is the most suitable, but because it is the cheapest & easiest to administer. Recovery is hard enough with appropriate support. When treatment is bungled it can do more harm than good. As already stated, re referral is doubly hard.
While you wait or fight for professional help (that may never come) your life is disintegrating. Friends who were initially supportive fade away when you never quite get all the way better. Employers sprint. They’ll talk a good game; train a mental health first aider or make a donation. Test their commitment with sick time or requesting accommodations & watch them run. You are left with the people who care enough to stay. Your predicament remains. You don’t want to worry them. You don’t want to ruin anything or be the thing that tips their bad news scale. It’s never the right time. We all want to believe that catch phrases are enough, but buzzwords will never cut it. What happens after I say I’m not ok?
The truth is, more often than not, nothing. The pandemic has only increased strain on an already buckling system. I don’t have all the answers. I do know that a cute Instagram post during an awareness month isn’t it. We need huge institutional shifts. More money, more training, more oversight. Our political representatives need to know that we want action. 1 in 4 adults will experience mental illness in their lifetime. Telling them that’s ok isn’t enough. We have to be advocates.
If someone in your life is suffering without help you can contact your Mp & express your concern.
Find out how long waiting lists are in your area & ask you Mp what they’re doing about that.
Stop voting for people who are actively defunding our health service.
Be proactive. Ask loved ones what specific help you can provide.
Use your social media to contact politicians directly. Ask questions publicly. Embarrass those whose voting records go against their constituents interests.
Accompany a friend to appointments if they require support. Insist that interactions are recorded in medical records.
We have to demand more of ourselves and of those with the power to make changes. Truthfully, it doesn’t feel ok, not to be ok.
* Information Services Scotland ** SAMH