There’s been lots of talk of Amy Winehouse’s demise today. Like most people – I think it’s very sad. A young woman with huge talent, dragged under by mental health problems.
But not everyone has been so kind. There have been comments about her demise being self-inflicted – because of her drug and alcohol abuse.
Like most people – I didn’t know her so I’m not going to pass any judgement. I do however have strong feelings about people’s attitude to mental illness. And if one good thing comes out of her death, I hope it is a better understanding of it.
My own experience of mental health problems is second hand. But it has had a huge impact on me recently.
A few months ago, an old school friend came to stay. We rarely see each other, as Jamie lives abroad. On this last visit, we had one evening on our own together. Probably the only evening we have had alone together for nearly 20 years. And as the wine went down and we chatted into the early hours, Jamie told me something that truly shocked me.
At the age of four, Jamie had his first break down. He remembers it vividly. It was his birthday party – a day every four year old should relish. But it all got too much for him – really too much, to the point he felt almost paralysed, like the world was crashing in on him. So he crawled under a table, put his hands over his ears, and refused to come out.
As a parent, I can imagine that his parents would have thought it nothing more than over tired behaviour. And it was only retrospectively that Jamie recognised it for what it was.
As he grew up, Jamie had several more of these incidents. But each time, the effects lasted longer and were harder to shake off.
Finally, after a year at university, he had a really bad break down. It wasn’t that he couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. He couldn’t get out of bed at all. So he ended up in hospital where they subjected him to a cocktail of horrendous medications, with dreadful side effects and finally, when they didn’t work, a course of ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy).
For those of you who don’t know, ECT involves passing a current through the brain to produce an epileptic fit. For Jamie, it was a dreadful experience and it didn’t make him better.
Eventually he left hospital, with a cocktail of anti-depressants, and went travelling. On this trip he had his final ‘episode’. He was working on a boat, which had been at sea for several days. The weather had been dreadful and Jamie had terrible seasickness. He finally reached the point where the world seemed to close in on him and he just couldn’t cope any more. But this time he had the strength to get help. In the depths of his depression he managed to summon the will power to get on the radio to the coast guard.
The coast guard came and took him back to land and he eventually recovered. But he also realised that for the first time, he had been able to summon the strength to ‘do something about it’. It was a turning point in his life.
Subsequent to this final episode, he found a fantastic doctor who changed his whole drug regime. It has changed his life. And he has not had another bout of depression since. But he will have to continue to take medication all his life.
I was really stunned to hear all of this. I knew that he had been in hospital and had even visited. But at the time, I had teenage issues of my own to deal with and wasn’t really equipped to understand.
The old “why didn’t you tell me” sprung to my lips. Even as I said it, I realised the answer.
“Well, you know… It’s kind of hard to explain to people.” He said.
But what he really meant was: People don’t understand. People don’t like to talk about it for fear of the social reaction to it – you’ve heard the comments:
“He’s a bit of a weirdo.” “She’s an oddball.” “He’s a bit funny in the head”.
If someone had cancer, kidney failure, or heart disease they would receive sympathy and understanding. It’s about time this kindness and understanding was extended to those with mental health problems.
Personally I think it’s the fear of what is unknown that causes this reaction. If people had more information it would be less scary.
I’m not a doctor, so I’m not in a position to advise. But it might surprise you to know how common mental health problems are. They need to be talked about more freely, so that those suffering from them don’t feel so isolated.
And on that note, I’m going to sign off with a few statistics from the Mental Health Foundation:
It is estimated that about 450 million people world wide have a mental health problem.
About 10% of children have a mental health problem at any one time.
Suicide remains the most common cause of death in men under the age of 35.
British men are three times more likely to commit suicide than British women.
About 8-12% of the population suffer depression in any one year.
And yes – it could be you….
Food for thought….?