It’s Mental Health Awareness Week again and this year the tone appears to be changing. Not the tone of the government or most of the charities, but from campaigners and sufferers of mental illness there’s a distinct change occurring, a tiredness, a frustration and a building anger. This year’s theme is Nature which seems innocuous enough but honestly, who is it helping? For years, we’ve known that nature and being in green spaces helps improve mood etc etc. And yet, we are increasingly building on green spaces, packing people in like sardines so they’ve got no views, no parks, no wildlife around them and then during awareness weeks we tell them to go and seek out the nature that’s been so cruelly stripped away from their neighbourhood. How? Where? With what funds?
One of the biggest problems I have with this week is that it’s not designated to a proper cause. It’s called Mental Health Awareness Week but mostly it’s Mental Illness Awareness Week. Really, there need to be two. But much more than that, people need educating on the difference. We all have mental health, like we all have physical health, we all need to take care of our mental health just like we need to look after our bodies but mental illness is illness like any other. It’s when something’s gone wrong, off kilter, and we need access to diagnosis, treatment and support in order to regain wellness again. Nature is not a substitute for support, nor is it a treatment for mental illness. It’s a good tool to help keep mentally healthy and performing at your best but if you’re mentally ill, a walk or a roll around in some grass isn’t going to cut it where medication or therapy are needed.
Nature isn’t accessible to everyone. For so many reasons and in so many ways. Not just because it can be difficult to find when you live in particularly urban areas but also for those with limited time or resources and most notably for me, because I’m agoraphobic. My condition means that I don’t cope well with being outside so nature is pretty inaccessible to me. Lack of access to nature isn’t what’s keeping me ill, it’s not the cure for my conditions and yet all I’m really seeing on social media and the news this week is about how nature can help alleviate symptoms and while this is true in mild cases, it’s really not effective for those of us with severe symptoms. Most days I’m not well enough to even go out of my front door, let alone go into nature for a walk or a picnic. I live in a flat so I don’t have a garden I can go to. I’m very lucky to have a lovely view and can see a local park and the South Downs in the distance, I see squirrels and seagulls and foxes and people walking their dogs but it’s all through panes of glass. I’ve tried to follow tips and bring the outside inside and have an orchid and I’m growing some tomato and chilli plants. Surprisingly enough, despite all of this, my anxiety isn’t better and my agoraphobia still isn’t cured.
What I need is therapy. I don’t need awareness so much as I need access to support. I need to stop being threatened with discharge from my mental health team. I need support and treatment to exist in accessible ways that don’t require me to leave my home, the thing I need therapy in order to do! I need options that aren’t just CBT which I’ve exhausted over the years and which doesn’t work for people like me. I need waiting lists to be shorter. I need to not be waiting 3 years or more for an assessment that may still not lead to any new treatment options. I need doctors, MPs, and society as a whole to fight for funding so that instead of churning out the same “It’s OK Not To Be OK” and “Be Kind”, and “Reach Out For Help If You’re Struggling” slogans year on year, change actually occurs and people like me can finally access treatment and support without having to wait until these conditions possibly kill us. Fighting my own mental illness is hideously hard but fighting society at large as well is impossible. I’ve been blogging for 6.5 years and nothing has changed. Services in my area have been cut, doctors are retiring or leaving, appointments get shorter and spaced further apart and the threat of discharge gets bandied about more regularly. I’m still just as ill as when I first went to the doctors. I’ve still not received any therapy on the NHS. I can’t be medicated because all of the medications made me worse. I’ve just been left. The support I’m offered is an up to 30 minute call once every 6 months with my psychiatrist. He doesn’t know my Grandad who I was a carer for for 4 years has died, he doesn’t know that I’ve had physical health problems that have majorly affected my sleep for almost 3 months, he doesn’t know I’ve suffered from intermittent suicidal ideation, or that the waiting list for the assessment he’s sent me for has been extended by another year. Why? Because my next appointment isn’t until June and I last spoke to him before Christmas.
Nature’s great but it’s not a substitute for treatment. Awareness Weeks have had their day. What we really and truly need is Action Weeks. And then actual action. I no longer care about whether people accept that I have an anxiety disorder or realise that it’s not my fault or that I shouldn’t be ashamed of it. I know that awareness has its place for all of the people who are coming up behind me who are starting to suffer symptoms that they don’t understand or who are having experiences they’ve never had before. I know we need to make people aware but the whole point of awareness always used to be so that you sought help early enough because it’s been well-documented for a long time that the earlier you intervene in mental illness, the better the outcome and the less intervention is usually needed. But support is so sparse now that awareness is almost useless. It’s all well and good suspecting you have a mental illness and going to speak to your GP about it but then what? Almost all of the doors that used to open are firmly nailed shut thanks to funding cuts. We keep hearing about a pandemic of mental illness, but there’s no vaccine coming for this and social distancing will surely worsen the effects. Knowing what’s wrong with you is the first step but without a second you’re still stranded. Alone. Frightened. Unable to get better. And sorry to be a cynic, but walks or visiting gardens is going to be of little use to people suffering from psychosis or eating disorders or just about any mental illness that’s actually at a diagnosable level of severity.
I’ve been in two minds about whether to even post about this because I really don’t like posting negative or angry things, especially about public events or things that are aiming to help but this is falling so short. It’s like the Clap for Carers. It’s all well and good clapping but it’s not paying people’s bills, it’s not actually making a meaningful difference and it changes nothing in the grand scheme of things. Awareness weeks have had their day and could still be useful now if they were followed up with action but all the time we’re focusing on airy-fairy topics like nature and deeming that to improve everyone’s mental illnesses, we’re falling dangerously short and without radical change this pandemic is going to last a lot longer than the Covid-19 one will. We don’t need Awareness Weeks. We need action!
This is really brilliant Lucy, right up there with all your very best blogs, you really should be on the radio as some sort of Mental health awareness ambassador. Congratulations on an extremely well written and heartfelt blog post.
Thank you so much, I’m so glad you think so! I’d love to be doing something on the radio, just got to work on my confidence in putting myself out there so that I can do those things without relying on being asked. I’m glad this came across so well! xxx
Thank you so much for this incredibly well written piece. Quite honestly this could have been written about me. I’m severely agoraphobic and trapped in my home with no means to access the great outdoors and with no proper support. I’ve had three courses of CBT and it hasn’t helped at all. I can’t take medication because I have too many allergies as well as being underweight and emetophobic. I have, just like you, basically just been left to get on with it despite the fact that my GP is aware that I don’t eat or sleep and can no longer function in any vaguely normal way. Reading your blog post this evening has helped me enormously in that it makes me feel less alone. Somebody understands! I completely share your frustrations regarding ‘mental health awareness’ and I have to say that from my experience we, the agoraphobics, are pretty much invisible even to the mental health professionals. Things must change and we have to keep pushing and trying to make our voices heard, no matter how exhausting it is. Thank you for your honesty and your eloquence. I hope that your situation improves and that you get access to the help that you need. I do agree with the above comment – you really ought to be given public recognition for your wonderful pieces of writing.
Thank you for such a lovely comment! I’m so glad you liked my post and agree with what I wrote. You’re definitely not alone though for many of us, especially agoraphobics, it often feels like we are. I’m so sorry to hear that you’re having the same experience as me with not getting suitable treatment, it breaks my heart that so many of us are being left to live this way. I wish there was a way to reach more people to be heard more so that fewer people feel alone and so that society at large would realise what a huge problem this is. Sadly, social media algorithms are really working against me at the moment as everything is geared up to sponsored posts and ads so hardly anyone is seeing anything I write or post but I’m still determined to shout into the void to reach people occasionally who need to be found and reminded there are lots of us in this same fight together. xxx
I hope it’s okay to make a second comment but just want to agree regarding green space and increasing urbanisation. When we moved to our “village” 26 years ago it was lovely, everyone had beautiful gardens but sadly that’s no longer the case. Front gardens have been paved over for parking, back gardens have had trees and bushes ripped out and astroturf and decking laid. I’m not exaggerating; from my front windows I used to be able to look onto my elderly neighbours lawn but now two 4×4’s are parked a few feet from my living room window. The back garden fared even worse, where there used to be apple trees, gooseberry bushes, oak, holly and maple there is now sterility. Decking, a huge hot tub and nothing green. This has had a huge impact on me personally since I can no longer enjoy my own garden, for the past year I haven’t set foot outside my house because where I used to sit and listen to birdsong there is now the 24/7 hum of a hot tub. This is happening everywhere. We have crammed as many trees and shrubs into our tiny plot but we know that were we to move every single living thing would be ripped out. The hypocrisy of our councils in telling people to get out and enjoy nature is appalling. The urbanisation of villages like this one is increasing at an alarming rate and even though they claim not to build on green spaces the developers always somehow find a way around the planning regulations. Even sadder is that people like my new neighbours don’t seem to care that their 6 year old will never see a woodpecker or pick apples straight from the tree. Sometimes I think there is no hope for future generations but then I come across a blog like yours and realise that sanity and reason is not totally lost. I am sorry for the very long comment again but I just want to commend you for another wonderful piece of writing. Please keep up the good work when you are well enough to write, it really does make a difference. Thank you, Lucy, you are a wonderful writer and a true inspiration. Stay well xxx
Of course it’s ok to comment twice, I’m honoured you came back to write again! 🙂 I’m so sorry to hear about what’s happened to your village, that’s so sad and it’s such a waste! I’m one of these people who, if I moved into a house with urbanised gardens would be ripping it all up and putting nature back where it belongs but we seem to be few and far between. It’s such a shame that so many people turn their gardens into almost indoor spaces with electricity and noise and light pollution etc, the hot tub hum would do my head in! I spend a lot of time imagining what my future garden will be like, my partner really wants and apple tree and I’m desperate for a raspberry bush and to be able to grow other fruit and veg. I love photographing birds so I’d definitely want bird feeders and bee-friendly plants etc. I dream of having hedgehogs visit though I know that’s increasingly unlikely which is so sad. I think people who are 30 and under are starting to really miss green spaces and want to protect them, a lot of people who are my age (30) really struggled through lockdown due to lack of access to green spaces and I think going forwards it’ll be more of a priority so hopefully the tide will turn. I hope things will change in better directions both for mental illness treatment and nature being made more of a priority in society. I’m sure it would benefit everyone if those 2 changes were made. Thank you again for both of your lovely comments and for taking the time to read my blog and then contact me, it means a lot. Take care xxx