Mental Health Awareness

So, my lovely mum was sectioned last week. This is a blog about her and me. It is written for catharsis and comradeship.

Mum has suffered periods of intense anxiety and depression for her whole life. The first time I can remember going through it with her was when I was 12. As an adult, we have been through it together around five times, including this time – so it’s not often. Her slide usually begins with sleeping problems caused by anxiety and progresses to a refusal to eat, drink, take any medication or answer the door/phone, due to the potential for any of these things to cause a problem (‘I can’t have milk in my tea because those baby cows don’t get properly weaned’). Thanks to medication or, sometimes, seemingly just the sheer strength of her will, she has managed to come out of it each time, after a period of weeks or months, whereupon we don’t discuss it, because she always wants to think of that as the last time it will happen.

I live in hope but prepare for the worst. This time she started to show signs in the middle of March. I raised my concerns and was rebuffed – she doesn’t want to admit she is ill. I live nearly 3 hours’ drive away, which makes it hard to be insistent. I tried again two weeks later and she eventually agreed to make a doctor’s appointment, in two weeks’ time. Her friends rallied round. Unfortunately, by that point she wasn’t really sleeping or eating, so it was already too late. The doctor prescribed her something she refused to take and gave her a follow up appointment three weeks later. By the time I was able to visit her to make sure she went to that appointment, she was about 15lbs down and away with the fairies. We went to the doctor, who prescribed low-dose anti-depressants to help with the sleeping, and I brought her back to stay.

I hoped that food, company, exercise, rest and meds would help her to return to an even keel, but it just didn’t happen that way this time. We had a couple of good days but that was followed by a complete crash. She refused food and medication unless we resorted to extreme cajoling. We couldn’t have the TV on or talk on our phones while she was in earshot. I had to sneak away to do work or she would become anxious about my workload and the burden she imagined she was being (being banned from TV and phone is actually quite a good way to get me to do work, so her presence was paradoxically helpful). When my husband and I had to physically restrain her to stop her from running out of the house, we involved the professionals. And after a few visits from the community mental health team, they called for an Assessment under the Mental Health Act.

This is not the first time I have been through this, but it is the first time it has resulted in a section. In my view, she was no worse this time than the time I requested hospitalisation: what has changed is the attitude of the services. I am heartened by how seriously they took my concerns and how carefully they listened, and then by how hard they worked to make it happen. Assessment under the Mental Health Act is difficult to arrange. The person being assessed must have a bed waiting for them to go to if needed – my county only has 13 mental health beds. Two doctors must attend with a social worker. But the team managed to find her a bed in her hometown and they found the doctors and they arranged a transport for the same day. So, away she went. We visited this past weekend and I am feeling cautiously positive, though it is early days. The hospital is lovely. She’s responding the texts and phone calls.

I feel like I should say that I have been ripped open with this, because it’s the reaction people seem to be expecting, but all I can feel at the moment is relief that her problems are finally being taken seriously. I also feel vindicated. When the community mental health team told me they thought she needed an Assessment and asked me how I felt about it, I said that my frame of reference for ‘normal’ had clearly become very skewed, because I didn’t think it was any worse than when she was refused hospitalisation in 2005. So I’m getting on with things, focusing hard on the mantra that I did everything I could, though it wasn’t enough. Did I do everything I could? I think so.

I wanted to share my experience in a way that might be helpful to others going through similar issues. There’s a rumble that people only share their perfect lives online: to some extent that’s true. I don’t share this stuff online because I don’t really want to talk about it with people I don’t know – it’s partly about protecting my own mental health. However, in the interest of mental health awareness, I thought I should highlight that ‘this stuff’ is happening all over the place and you don’t have to manage it alone.

I also wanted to say to people who are worried they might be starting to slide: go to the doctor. Talk to your family. You’re not being a burden. They want to hear from you. Do it now. They can help. We live in a world with an improving understanding of how to deal with mental health problems: take advantage of it.

Finally, a note here to school leaders: sometimes we need time off. I’m Mum’s only relative resident in the UK, so it has to be me. My school has been so understanding and supportive through this time.  At my last school, the absence policy would not have allowed for me to have any time for this – ‘attending medical appointments with a relative’ was specifically named as not-a-good-reason-for-time-off. That type of policy seems to be more and more common in schools as people attempt to run them like businesses, ignoring the fact that they are services, which partly operate on the goodwill of teachers, who give thousands of extra hours. I can never book a day off to be with Mum for her birthday and I’ve missed at least seven Mothers Days staffing student residential weekends: that’s fine. But there has to be some quid pro quo. You have the ability to make it easier for teachers to ask for time off in exceptional circumstances.

I consider myself very lucky that I have had good mental health for my life, to date, but I don’t take it for granted. I prioritise self-care. I talk. I blog. I holiday, a lot. I read. I exercise. I maintain my relationships. I don’t work on Saturdays, as far as possible. I create places of safety where I always, no matter how I am feeling, play the confident character. I try to lend credence to how others see me, rather than relying solely on my view of myself. I seek situations where I can be successful, and I celebrate that success and store it up for future moments of impostor syndrome. I actively avoid dwelling on negatives – which is why you will rarely, if ever, find me talking about bad times on Twitter.

What do you do to safeguard your mental health?

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1 Response to Mental Health Awareness

  1. Chris Culpin says:

    Dear Sally,
    You have written a blog which is extraordinary in its honesty and clarity. I’m sure you have done, and are continuing to do, all you can, in loving thoughtfulness.
    I shall certainly look again at our Staff absence policy.
    Be sure that I and all your friends, are thinking of you.

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