For World Mental Health Day, a member of our staff at The Retreat has shared her own account of experiencing mental health difficulties:

I’d had talking therapy before – a course of counselling to help process some traumatic events I’d experienced. I was fortunate that this was organised through my work’s employee assistance scheme, and therefore free for me. I know this isn’t the case for everyone. 

At the time, I found myself becoming upset and angry at work when certain topics came up, and realised I needed some help in working through things. The goal of therapy was to stop everything spilling out; that through talking and processing, my experience could be placed neatly in a container in my mind and I could choose when to open the lid, rather than it popping open and the contents going everywhere. It really helped; work gave me time off to attend appointments and were very supportive, for which I’m grateful for.

Fast forward a couple of years

Whilst on maternity leave, I began to wonder if every new parent felt the way I did. Does everyone feel so exhausted all the time? Probably. Does anyone else wonder if it’s okay that you really have no idea what you’re doing? Also, probably. Does everyone else stay awake most nights wondering and researching about car seat safety and requesting your baby’s medical records and re-thinking over driving routes for the next day and feeling like you’re not in control of your own body and crying all the time? Perhaps not. 

To draw upon my previous experience of therapy, this container – a series of traumatic events whilst pregnant and since becoming a parent, plus everything else that goes with it – wasn’t just open with the contents spilling, it was almost broken. Logically, I knew that I ‘should’ ask for help. Saying the words was a different matter.

Asking for help

After nine months or so of feeling things I didn’t know how to explain or communicate about, asking for help still felt hard. My little one was under a year old. I’d had many contacts with the health visitors and my GP before, all routine appointments, pre Covid-19 when you could actually see people. Every time I wondered whether I should mention something. No, probably just sleep-deprived. Every time they asked about mental health, I said I was fine. I work in mental health after all. 

It was the same with friends and family; “How are you doing?” was replied to with a jolly “Tired!” and how we laughed whilst I felt more sad and alone than I’ve ever felt. It was the same at playgroups and baby classes, which I attended every day if not more frequently to keep myself constantly busy (actually I was burnt out and used being busy as an avoidance tactic). 

I really wanted to ask, to shout actually, at other parents, “At what point are you considered no longer ‘just tired’ and it’s something more? That maybe something is wrong?”. At what point do you talk about post-natal depression?

“I don’t know where to start” is the first thing I said to the Health Visitor when I decided enough was enough and called to ask for help. Things had reached a point at home and internally with myself, that it had become obvious things were not going to magically get better on their own. I’ve never cried so much during a phone call. 

Getting therapy

health visitors referred me and I was assessed and then seen by my local NHS IAPTs (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) team. It got worse before it got better, while I was waiting (probably because I was already at the lowest point before even calling) and while I was having therapy. Travelling to appointments was challenging in itself and the sessions were hard and exhausting in many ways. 

However, it definitely would have been harder to not go, to stay as I was, or worse. I now have the words to describe what I was going through, and with my therapist we worked out together enough of the whys. Accessing therapy doesn’t change my experience. If anything, the experience has certainly changed me. But it’s no longer the case that everything, my relationships, my home life, how I feel, is affected by it.

Wishing I’d spoken sooner

The container has been broken, repaired, with the marks still visible. Now, mostly, I can choose when to open it on my own terms, and replace the lid. Sometimes the lid wobbles, and the contents threaten to spill. I try to remember what we talked about in therapy, and sometimes re-read my discharge report. Sometimes it does spill, and I’m ok with that now. 

I wish, with all the benefit of hindsight, I’d have spoken to someone sooner.

World Mental Health Day’s focus this year is ‘Mental Health for all’. Calling for more funding, more access, for more people. For everyone. Whoever you are. You. If you’re experiencing thoughts or feelings that you’re not sure about, that you think you might need some help with, please reach out to talk to someone. It could be someone you know and trust, a friend, a loved one, or a professional like your GP or your local NHS IAPTs team. It’s hard to start talking about it, but I think it’s harder if you don’t start.