Supporting Friends Througn Mental Illness

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With 1 in 4 people in the UK being diagnosed with a mental illness it is very likely that a friend or family member could be one of these people.  It can be hard to know how to help when you hear of someone getting diagnosed with depression which affects around 300 million people, or anxiety, two of the biggest mental illnesses in the Uk, or any other mental health illness, a lot of what is written on the internet is about how the person affected can help themselves, the types of medical help that are available or guidance notes for employers to follow.

I have been through a diagnosis of mental illness and had 6 months away from work with anxiety and depression coupled with stress, and I am still recovering so the following post is about how you can support friends through mental illness based on the things that helped me.

  • Let them know you are there for them. Just hearing the words “I’m always here for you” and knowing that it is meant was a big support for me.
  • Don’t ask “How are you?” as many people will answer with a generic “I’m fine.” Instead, ask how they are feeling. I have a friend who always sends me a text to ask how I am feeling and it has always given me the opportunity to really talk about my feelings, sometimes being able to share those things is easier with a direct question.
  • Ask what you can do to help. Sometimes the answer may be nothing but other times it could be to run some errands or even just sit and chat.
  • Ask what they would like to do, and have some suggestions for things if they say they don’t want to do anything. My friend would ask me this and I would say nothing a lot of the time as I didn’t want to waste their time, but they would always suggest things like watching a film, cooking some food or playing games on the computer which made me feel good that they wanted to spend time with me.
  • Always remember them in group plans. My friend was brilliant at this, even when I’m sure they knew I would say no.  There really is no worse feeling than friends making plans and not being included.
  • There were times that I didn’t want to talk and there were times when I really needed to let everything out and having someone to just sit and listen was so valuable.
  • Don’t judge. There were times, at the beginning of my mental health illness where I hadn’t done any housework for weeks, I was still in the same pyjamas 3 days down the line, my hair wasn’t brushed or even washed and I felt embarrassed but my friends never judged me or made me feel bad about it.  If you can, do a small task for them, like washing the dishes, sometimes that little gesture helps more than you can imagine.  On one of my bad days where I hadn’t taken a shower for a week or even gotten dressed properly one of my friends came round and sat with me while I took a shower, they picked out some clothes for me to wear then blow-dried my hair for me because everything had felt too huge and overwhelming for me to do myself and those little things made such a difference to my week.

I hope that this guide is useful if you can think of any other ways to help support a friend through mental health illness then let me know in the comments.

Words On Wednesday

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Is enough being done to support employees who have mental health problems?  This is one question that has arisen since attending the HPMA Awards Ceremony last week.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how well people with mental health problems are supported in their employment.  When I was signed off by the doctor back in September last year with stress, anxiety and depression I had to phone my place of employment on a weekly basis to update my manager on how I was feeling and how my treatment plan was going.  I was already experiencing stress and anxiety and this seemed to cause me further distress as part of my illness meant that I was getting over-anxious and finding it difficult to talk to anyone.  Couple that with my Aspergers which makes it difficult for me to vocalise my thoughts and feelings and get nervous about phone conversations and I was in a really difficult space.  I understand that my employer needed to know how I was recovering but when I was seeing the doctor on a fortnightly basis and being signed off for a fortnight at a time I did feel that the level of contact expected of me was a bit much at times.

When I returned to work I was introduced back to the working environment on a phased return which was a really good thing to get me used to being back in a working routine in the office and to test the waters with how I was feeling.

Now though, I feel like I am on my own where it comes to my mental health.  Unlike a lot of illnesses and other medical problems (like a broken leg for example), I will not fully heal and suddenly be better.  I have days where I am feeling brilliant, weeks when I am good or ok and then there are times that I really do struggle.  I have days where I have to drag myself to work and fight to stay for the day rather than run home and sleep.

Those bad days are the worst.  People often think that because you have managed to get to work that you must be fine and expect you to continue with your work as you had been on your good days.

The alternative to going to work on a bad day is to phone up and take a day off as a sick day.  I have not done this as I have no idea how to explain to someone that my mental health is such that I really can not face work.  I am also aware that the sickness policy is such that 3 sets of absence act as a trigger for a sickness review where a meeting with my line manager would take place and my “illnesses” discussed.  Any additional absences trigger further warnings until eventually you are dismissed from your job.  The policy for sickness may differ from place to place but for my last 4 jobs the same policy has been in place.

The big question is, should mental health be treated as a sickness under the sickness policy?  I’m not sure that it should be as it is something that has varying degrees of being ok or not.  I think that there should be an understanding between employer and employee with regards to mental health, and taking a day off because of mental health should be allowed, not be taken as a sick day, annual leave or as unpaid leave.  I think that employees who are either on medication or under their doctor or mental health worker should have some kind of special leave granted for when things become too overwhelming.

I can see that special leave for mental health could be abused by an employee but I feel that if it was monitored correctly then people would not need to take days off here and there.

More could be done by the employer too, whether it is having regular “check-ins” with their employee just to see if all is ok when the employee is in work, or just noticing if the employee has changed, for example – becoming more withdrawn when they used to be chatty, getting less work done than before, if they appear to be getting more stressed out…

What are your thoughts on this?  I’d love to have conversations with you in the comments about this.

The Hidden Effects of Mental Health

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There are now so many prompts to talk about mental health from Time to Talk Day to Mental health Awareness Week where opportunities are given to learn about mental health or talk about mental health from a first-person perspective.  Things that get talked about, often, during these periods are the causes of mental health problems, symptoms, medications that can help, looking after our mental health, spotting signs in friends and family and how to help others.  The stigma attached to mental health is often talked about in great depth but one thing I have found that gets overlooked is the hidden effects of mental health.

So, what are the hidden effects of mental health?

People who have had mental health problems experience the hidden effects, which often go unnoticed.  Some of these things can be

  • Social circle shrinks

When you have mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, it can be hard to stay in contact with friends, from calling, texting or attending evenings out, and before you know it, friends have drifted away.

  • Being overwhelmed

When my mental health starts to disintegrate, I stop doing things like cleaning my house or doing the washing up or laundry and as I get better, I can feel overwhelmed by all of the tasks that need to be done.  I also experience a sense of overwhelm when I go outside – to the shops, after a period of locking myself away in the house.

  • People treat you differently

Without wanting to, I have found that people’s attitude can change and they start treating you as if you are fragile and will break.  I have experienced this in work, where, even now, I still get concerned looks from my colleagues or do not seem to get to do the same types of work as others in case I cannot cope.

  • Lack of trust

I think that this lack of trust can be linked to people treating you differently, shrinking of social circles and the stigma that is still attached to mental health.  It can be hard to open yourself up to people and to talk about feelings, especially people you may not know very well.

  • Feeling trapped in a cycle

I often wonder if I will ever be well enough to be medication free or if I will have to rely on my tablets to keep me functioning at a level forever.  Sometimes it feels like I am stuck in a cycle of requesting my prescription, collecting tablets, taking tablets and doctor’s appointments to monitor my medications.

  • Slowing down

If people have to take medication for mental health there are side effects, which can affect memory and the speed at which we process things or our ability to understand things as easily.  This can be frustrating as we know we should be able to understand, remember or process things easily.

I can only write from my own experiences, though I do know, from conversations that I have had, that there are other effects that having mental health problems which all have a different impact on us.

Have you had any effects caused by having mental health problems?  I’d love to chat about your experiences in the comments.

Words on Wednesday

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I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about targeted advertising and its effects on mental health.

Targeted advertising campaigns are usually run by online services, typically social media such as Facebook and Instagram.  This type of advertising uses different methods of selecting the types of adverts we see, from items we have searched for online, products we have bought, our location, age, gender, race, and even relationship status.  Some of these adverts are specifically targeted, for example, you may have searched for a certain type of tea and start seeing more adverts for different types or brands of tea, others could be more generally targeted, such as posting your relationship as being single, you may get targeted with dating site adverts, others may use your demographic, mine being female, 30’s, single, in full or part and match your stats to what others in that group have been searching for, or things that advertisers may think your age group are interested in.

My thoughts on the types of targeted advertising.

  • Specifically Targeted.

I don’t mind specifically targeted adverts as I find that I can discover other brands that I may never have heard of before or items I may never have considered.  This type of advertising is a bit like browsing the supermarket shelves and can expose us to more brands and deals.

  • Generally Targeted.

Generally targeted adverts can be a good or bad thing, I’m neither for or against this type of advert.  Back in my Facebook days, I found lots of things I was interested in through generally targeted adverts, equally were the adverts that I saw making the assumption that I was lonely and needed to find a date what with being single and everything…(eyeroll)

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  • Demographically Targeted.

This type of advertising is one that I have seen a huge rise in and the one that I find affects me most mentally.  I see adverts for weight loss products, fertility treatments, baby and toddler things, wedding dresses, the list is endless.  This type of advertising makes assumptions based on what it knows about you and where you fit in society, what your age group and gender are searching for, not you specifically, and this is the advertising I think that is most damaging to our mental health.

Why do I think this demographically targeted advertising is most damaging to our mental health?

This advertising makes assumptions about us regarding our age, gender, location and shows adverts that others in that group have been looking at.  Now, the adverts that I have seen assume that because I am in my 30’s I am thinking about or having children, that I am looking to lose weight quickly, planning a wedding, buying my dream home, and I’m not doing any of those things.  On a good day, this kind of advertising doesn’t bother me, and in all honesty, I don’t pay it that much attention, however, on a bad day, this sort of advertising can add to my negative mood.  I find myself comparing me to others, feeling sad, lost and insecure, unaccomplished and wondering if I am good enough.

Instagram introduced a mute button for us to still follow an account but not see their feed anymore, partly to stop us feeling so overwhelmed by others seemingly perfect lives (well, that is what I have used it for in the past) and it has been a suggested technique by several articles to help people to start loving their own lives again.  I have gotten used to seeing perfectly styled Instagram images and am aware that the images we see are highly curated, well lit and edited, and I view them as I do magazine images –  they are only that way for a second and no one sees how bad things may be behind the camera lens, or know in truth what is really happening behind the scenes.  What I am unable to block or mute are these demographically targeted adverts that I seem to be bombarded with each and every time I step foot onto social media.  And if I am being affected by them, how many others are as well?

What do you think of demographically targeted adverts?  Let me know in the comments!  I’d love to hear your opinion.

Stress Less Cards – Review

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I’ve added another item to my Mental Health Toolkit in the form of these Stress Less Cards.  I stumbled on these cards when perusing Amazon one evening around a month ago and decided to add them to my basket before checking out.  I was drawn to the idea of having a set of cards that I could carry around and use when I felt my stress and anxiety start to kick in as, even though I have had mindfulness classes and have other things I can use to bring my stress and anxiety back down, I was finding that I would forget them if I got too stressed out.  Having something written down that I could follow had a really big appeal.

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As these cards are roughly the size and shape of a deck of playing cards they fit into my pocket or into my bag without taking up much space at all.  There are 50 cards in the pack and have various mindfulness exercises printed on one side of the card and the Stress Less Cards name and mandala print on the reverse.  The cards are numbered at the bottom of the exercise side so you can work your way through the exercises from 1 to 50, or, like I prefer, take one out of the pack at random when you want to use them.

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The exercises only take a few moments out of your day and are designed to help lessen the anxiety and stress you are feeling.  The cards can be used anywhere, the size makes them perfect to use in work as they are small and not very noticeable.  I have used them in work and at home and feel that they really do help me to stress less, I have also found that they can really help with my concentration levels, which, at times can be sketchy at best.

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I’m not sure how well the cards will survive in the card box that they come in or the cards themselves with repeated use.  I would love the box to have been made of something sturdier (a metal tin would have been perfect) and perhaps having the cards laminated would help them to be a bit longer wearing, but for the moment I am happy with them, though I may transfer them to another container soon.

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Overall, I am really happy that I found and purchased these Stress Less Cards.

What things do you have to help you when your stress and anxiety starts to rise?

Mental Health and Me – An Update

img_4183I’ve been thinking about writing this post since my last mental health update which was back in February.  In that post, I had been to see the Occupational Therapist and was returning to work.  I had been advised to do a phased return into work, starting with shorter hours and increasing them over a period of weeks until I was back working full time.  It was also agreed that I would have regular meetings with my line manager just to make sure everything was ok.

I’m now back in work full time and have been working 37.5 hours a week since 8th April.  My phased return went well and it was surprising how quickly I adapted to being back in work which had been one of my main worries.  My work colleagues have been ok, though I am finding that some of them seem to be acting a bit differently to me.  Whether this is just how I am perceiving things or not, I’m not sure.  I also have not had any meetings with my line manager about how I am getting on which is a bit disappointing.  I know that I could always approach my manager but in all honesty, it makes me feel a bit awkward.  Not only am I doing ok but I also feel like, as it was something that was suggested by my manager then really they should be checking up with me.

I’m still on my medication, it was agreed with the Dr to increase my Sertraline from 100mg to 150mg and that dosage seems to be the one that is working best for me.  I am sleeping a lot better in the night’s now, though I am still not getting a proper full night of rest.  I am still feeling anxiety and stress but it is a lot easier to cope with now.  I have been making sure to utilise some of the things I have learned in mindfulness courses on a day to day basis.

I am also eating a lot better and generally taking better care of myself.  I have times when I need to be alone just to recharge my energy but those times seem to be moments when I take time out to do things I love to do, blogging, reading, thinking…

I have started to expand my hobbies and have started to work in my garden.  I have ideas to turn it into a really lovely space over the next few months.  I don’t really know where this love of gardening has come from but I do know that it is never something I even imagined that I would like let alone enjoy.

I have learned to listen to my body more, and have realised that it is ok to have off days where plans remain unchecked, that it is ok to take a nap in the afternoon and that it is ok to say no when I need to.  I know that these are small steps but they are all helping me on my journey to wellness.

Whether I will be able to reduce my medication or to ever not have anxiety, stress or depression is something that only time will be able to reveal, but for the moment I feel like I am doing ok, and doing ok is fine by me.

Mental Health and Me – An Update

I went to see Occupational Health on Tuesday last week.  At the time I didn’t really see that it was necessary as I knew that the environment I was going back to in work had changed, there had been work done to the offices – new heating systems put in and walls taken down which meant that the seating arrangements and whole office layout had changed which had changed the dynamics of the team I work in.  I thought that, until I returned to work I wouldn’t know if that environment had affected me or whether it would.

I got ready on the morning of my appointment and the anxiety started to creep in but I managed to control it.  I was really anxious about the drive there as I’ve not really driven much since I have been off from work.  I was also really worried about the actual appointment, what I needed to say, whether I would forget to mention anything, whether they would see me fit enough to return to work and whether I would be allowed to return to work full-time.

When I arrived I had to fill in a form with all my details on it, it was a quick form to fill in and taking time to answer it seemed to calm my nerves a bit.  I was 10 minutes early so I thought I would have to sit and wait but the doctor was able to see me straight away.  I think this helped too as I wasn’t able to start overthinking things.

We talked about how I am feeling now, how I was feeling, my medication, anything that may have triggered my anxiety, stress and depression and what sort of things I was doing to overcome my illness.  We talked about my worries about returning to work and how I’m still not sleeping properly.  The doctor was really lovely, she asked lots of questions and listened to my answers without brushing them off, and she gave me some really useful advice.  She also said that I would be ok to return to work on an extended phased return as she felt that it would be better for me.  She suggested that for 2 weeks I work a total of 12 hours over 3 days, the next 2 weeks increase to 15 hours over 3 days, the 3rd week 24 hours over 4 days and the final 2 weeks to work 30 hours over 5 days.  After that period of time I could then resume working 37.5hrs a week.

A report was written up and a copy was sent to my employer.  I spoke with my line manager on monday this week, it was the final day of being covered on my sick note and we discussed my return to work for Tuesday.  I decided, with her, that I would attend work at 9am and we would have a meeting to discuss my phased return.

So, yesterday, I got ready for my first day back.  I was really worried about going back, namely about how my work colleagues would be with me, where I was going to be sitting, if I could remember my log in details for my work computer and about what was going to happen during the day.

I arrived at work, found my desk, my computer took an age to fire up as it had been switched off for some time, then I had problems with my computer screens (I use 2 for work), I then got locked out of the system as the password I did remember didn’t work.  Eventually I was able to get into the system!  I spent time sorting through my emails (all 600 of them!) then I had a meeting with my line manager, we needed to fill in some paperwork about returning to work, then my overall manager joined us to discuss the Occupational Health report.  She said that it was a really positive report and that she could see that I was taking steps to help myself which was good.  We then discussed my phased return.  Both my managers agreed that the proposed return was a good idea and that they had worked out a timetable of hours and days for me to work which was nice, and they asked what sort of hours I preferred – I said mornings, as eventually I would need to be getting up in the mornings to come to work anyway and a routine would be really beneficial to me and probably help with my sleep patterns.

After the meeting I went back to my desk and managed to do the work that had been allocated to me before it was time for me to go home.  My work colleagues were lovely and all said hi and had a chat with me.  One of my work friends had left a note on my desk welcoming me back and put a little Hello Kitty figure with it.  That really made me smile and was such a lovely gesture to come in to.

I’m back in work tomorrow and really looking forward to it.  I just have no idea what to wear!  This time last year it was freezing in the office but now the heating has been upgraded it seems warmer so I am unsure how to dress.

Time To Talk

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Today is Time to Talk Day, an initiative bought about to help end the stigma that surrounds mental health.

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http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

I decided that Time To Talk day was something I wanted to get involved with as mental health is something I have had dealings with over the course of my life and the stigma that surrounds mental health has always created a barrier that has stopped me from talking about my mental health.  And this stigma seems to be really silly, we all  have mental health, whether it is good, bad or you never think about it.  I think it is time to start having the conversations about our mental health, just as we do with our physical health, we need to normalise all health issues to the same level.

So, today I am going to share with you my mental health story. (You can find other posts about my mental heath here)

On a Monday morning, back at the beginning of September 2018, I got up to get ready for work and I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t face the idea of getting ready or even leaving the house to go to work, I felt dizzy, a bit sick and really panicky.  I already had a routine appointment with my doctor booked in for that morning and I managed to leave the house and get to it.  I sat in the doctors waiting room and just didn’t feel connected to myself, it felt like an alien had taken over and inhabited my body.  I got called in to the doctor’s office and just burst into tears.  I told him how I was feeling and we went through a series of question and answers and he eventually told me that I had anxiety, stress and depression.  I was prescribed medication and given a note for 2 weeks away from work and asked to return to the doctor for assessment at the end of that fortnight.

Those first weeks away from work went by in a haze.  I got up, took my medication and either slept or lay on the sofa, I couldn’t carry out tasks very easily as my thought process was jumbled and everything felt too hard.  My concentration levels dropped which meant that I had difficulty in reading a book or even following a tv show.  I don’t know whether that was down to the medication or whether that was my brains way of shutting off in order to heal itself.  I told this to the doctor on my next visit.

I had a lot of side effects from my medication, from feeling too hot or cold, feeling sick, shaking, headaches, bad stomach, feeling like I was going to pass out, lack of appetite, I can’t remember them all now.  The worst was feeling really wobbly and light-headed all day, so much so, that I didn’t trust myself to get into the shower or have a bath.  I was really worried that I would fall or pass out but really needed a shower.  In the end, I had to ask a friend to come around and stay while I had a shower incase I did fall.

Over time my medication was increased as my anxiety levels were still really high and I went on to have further side effects from the medication which have now gone as my body has got used to the ingredients.

I still have problems, sleep is an ongoing issue.  Despite how tired I am and what I have tried, I am not sleeping very much day-to-day, but when I do sleep I am loosing nearly 24 hours as my body and mind try to catch up.  I have been referred to a mental health worker who will be working with me to improve my sleep soon, so hopefully, I will be able to sleep for a full night again.  I still feel anxious, worried and feel the panic start to set in but I have a few coping mechanisms which seem to work well for me.  I have had a few anxiety/panic attacks (you can read about the worst one here) but generally I am able to take control of them as I feel them coming on, distracting myself by doing something I enjoy seems to help a lot.

I have been off from work for around 4 months now and I can feel my old self starting to return.  My concentration levels are increasing and I’m finding that I am able to do more things.  I am finding myself enjoying things that I used to and am preparing to return to work.

I think that the main thing I want to say is that if you are feeling stressed, anxious, depressed or start to notice that your enjoyment in life seems to be shrinking then it really is worth speaking to a medical practitioner.  There is no shame to be had by saying that you are not ok, and seeking help for it.  I have also been blessed with having family and friends who I have been able to talk to and who have supported me through this period of time which has really helped me, whether it has been a phone call to ask how I am, a text or a visit, going shopping or cooking for me when I have been unable to, having a support network has really aided me along the way.

If you need to talk, there are lots of places you can turn to and a host of on-line support available as well as groups that meet in person, to find out what is available to you in your area Google is a good place to start.

And if you ever need someone to talk to, you can always drop me an email – my.colourful.life@outlook.com.

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Mental Health and Me – An Update

I spoke last month, in my mental health update here, about wanting to return to work in February and issues that I still had that were hindering returning to work, namely my problems with sleep.  At the time of that update I was waiting for a referral to some kind of therapy programme which may help me with my sleep issues.

I have now spoken with a member of the mental health team who went through an assessment with me and had a lengthy conversation about my sleep.  We spoke about how I wanted to return to work as I was feeling much better emotionally and how frustrated I am that sleep is now the biggest problem for me.  We identified some possible reasons why I’m having trouble sleeping including worry about returning to work (how it will affect me, what will happen when I’m back at work, others attitudes to me, as well as the general anxiety around my return), that my brain may not be getting enough mental stimulation now I’m getting better – a sign that returning to work would be good for me, how I am going to cope at work and having coping mechanisms in place, as well as anxiety about getting back into a work routine and balancing my work/home life.

We spoke about medication and the option of increasing the dosage during my return to work phase and seeing if that will help with sleep, and we spoke about having a key worker who would work with me 1 on 1 with issues I may have.   I said yes to both, so now I need to return to my doctor once the assessment has been recorded in my notes and request a dosage increase and wait for a letter regarding my key worker.

I have also been referred to Occupational Health by my manager so I can have a chat with a medical practitioner with regards to returning to work and what things work could put in place to support me in returning including a phased return which my manager suggested.  I have the appointment on Tuesday.

In all, I’m feeling pretty optimistic about everything.  I would have liked to return to work this past week but realise that there are certain things that need to be done before I can return.  I also think that implementing a phased return would be really helpful as it means I would be returning gradually and I won’t be feeling so overwhelmed by it all.

I will post an update once I have seen the Occupational Health practitioner and know what is going on more!