What do Scottish Conservative politician, Ruth Davidson, Olympic gold medal-winning athlete Dame Kelly Holmes, fashion stylish Gok Wan, Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and singer-songwriter Adele all have in common?
They have all been successful in their chosen fields.
And they have all spoken publicly about their mental health struggles (depression, self-harm and more; anxiety, bipolar disorder and post-partum depression respectively). Such bravery in speaking out about uncomfortable, and often invisible, mental health difficulties shows its indiscriminate nature. Anyone, anywhere, at any time can experience poor mental health.
Like these public figures, I am part of the 1 in 4 in the UK living with a mental health condition: depression and anxiety, which during particularly bad periods extends to suicidal tendencies and self-harm. Navigating such a condition throughout most of adulthood has provided a front-row rollercoaster seat into how outward appearances can be a woefully misleading measure of private mental wellbeing.
As a society we need to move away from the idea that mental ill health looks a certain way. You can’t pick out who it affects and we often consciously present to the world a version of ourselves that may not always match our true feelings; be this through wearing bright clothing or always showing a smile. And like a carefully curated social media profile it is possible to radiate technicolour confidence while inwardly feeling as lifeless as magnolia walls. An overly chatty neighbour may be desperately seeking a moment of adult connection before returning to care for an ill child. A non-stop, super-mum friend may volunteer and take part in endless activities to avoid her guilt at no longer being able to financially contribute to her household. A successful businesswoman, fuelled by her anxious belief that she will be discovered at any moment to be poor at her job, may suffer from chronic insomnia. When so many experience similar difficulties, it is no longer happening distantly to "other people". These narratives could be the agonising, daily reality for you, a family member, a close friend or a colleague.
The impulse to hide our suffering can come from a point of self-preservation, but when we consistently present something so far away from how we are feeling, we can become unmoored, and it can limit our ability to ask for the help we need. In desperation, unwilling to admit to myself what was happening, I tried my best to continue, frantically pushing away at the familiar dark emotions that had already found fertile ground and taken root. I went to work. I cleaned my flat. I drove to the supermarket. And this tremendous effort to appear normal fast-tracked my decline. I was ultimately signed-off work for 6 months. It felt like a foghorn announcement to others of my mental health difficulties. It was no longer possible to deny nor hide from my reality any longer.
From the occasional particularly stressful day, to managing a diagnosed mental health condition, no amount of money, education or material success can guarantee complete, lifelong immunity from all mental health difficulties. And, crucially, our personal interpretation of such difficulties is entirely unique, and all are equally valid. We sometimes fall into the trap of minimising our own suffering as we know of others who have it "worse" and appear to be coping (they may not be). Feelings do not need to be rational or logical for them to be legitimate. And no one has a greater moral claim to experience mental health difficulties than anyone else.
It is okay to admit that something is not quite right.
It is okay to ask for help.
It is okay to be human.
If you are needing mental health support, the Samaritans are available https://www.samaritans.org/ or seek medical advice from your health practitioner.