Mental Health Awareness Week

Last week I listened to a radio interview with Nigel Owens, the Welsh, international rugby referee. To be honest it was only because I was in the car driving and there was little else that interested me. Owens is not my favourite referee. He is that sort of chippy Welshman I don’t take to, but I am pleased I stuck with the long interview.

Owens talked about how he had attempted suicide, taken pills, was found and, according to doctors, 20 minutes away from death. He talked about the dark place that had driven him to the depths. For Owens, it was the realisation that he was gay and his inability to face it and come out.

Owens was asked if he thought about his family, in particular, his mother and father as he took the pills. Of course, he said that but in his dark place he believed that they would be better off without him. He knows now how wrong that was.

He then talked about being chased by publishers to write about the experience but always turned them down until later he learnt that his story had saved a young boy’s life.

The 16-year-old had become moody and withdrawn from his family. His parents were deeply worried. One day, with the normal truculence of a teenager the boy was sitting with a family friend around the kitchen table. The friend talked about Owens and with a casualness commented on his recent openness about being gay but more about how great a referee he was. The son left, went upstairs to be followed by his father and in those moments came out to his father. If Owens, a hero of rugby could be gay and yet still was accepted mostly as a first-class rugby man then maybe it was OK for the boy. The boy later owned up to his father that he was close to suicide.

Owens wrote his memoir to help others understand.

As I know very well mental health problems are common. Mind, the UK mental health charity report the following:

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.

In England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week

Yet, despite the frequency, there is still a stigma around mental health problems. We don’t want to talk about them and we don’t face up to them. Maybe it is because we can’t see the physicality of the illness in the way we see mumps, measles or a broken leg. Maybe it is because we think mad and Bedlam, but mental illness is not raving bonkers and always more likely to be subtle.

This is Mental Health Awareness Week and we need to focus particularly on the awareness. We need to recognise that with an almost certainty someday, some week in your near future you will feel and suffer, at the very least, mild symptoms. It may be more severe.

If you enter that dark place you need to talk to friends and doctors. If you see a friend or family member heading, there get advice. The worst you can do is nothing. I know that from personal experience.

7 years ago, I spent a year of my life spiralling down. I was alone in Dubai. I wouldn’t go out when during the day and the little food shopping I did was in the middle of the night at a 24-hour shop just outside my apartment. I slept when it was light and woke at night. I lost over 15kg. I cleared and sorted my life for what I thought was an inevitability and if it wasn’t for the thought of Ben, Lucinda and Maddie, and the legacy I would have left them, I might have taken the same option as Owens. Unlike Owens, I knew I wouldn’t be found.

I poured my waking life into writing my first book and that is why it has a special sentimental value to me. I remember when a character I thought would be there at the end, died. It had to happen. That was where the story went.

It wasn’t an easy night and I cried at her loss and that was probably the turning point to my recovery. It was the moment when again I felt an emotion stronger than my own dark place.

I still have the scars from that year. Possibly many of my current physical problems were exacerbated. It has taken time and empathy from those close to me to understand the cause was not that I didn’t love them or care for them. It was the opposite. It was the strength of my love for them that pulled me through.

And then there is Sasha. She doesn’t realise quite how important she has been in my recovery and I feel blessed that she came into my life. I know I would love her without my past but because of my past finding, someone who loves me unconditionally is even more special.

Mental Health problems can be invisible, but they can be treated.  Someone you know needs your help. They are not mad, they are unwell. They can be helped and treated. Be aware and show your love.