Why it’s not OK to be not OK

world mental health day blog

On 18th April 2019 I lost my Dad to suicide. That moment will be forever imprinted in my mind. I remember my blood curdling scream, blocking out all life. Being suspended in a never ending moment of silent sickening horror. 

In the months and years that followed, I searched inside and out for answers. Listening to stories, looking through research, questioning myself and others. As a survivor of bereavement by suicide, I've become aware of how hard it is to face the dark depths of mental despair. And, how hard it is to support someone when they do. 

Within this blog I explore two sides of the same coin - shame and stigma. The shame my Dad, and many people feel about their mental struggles. And the stigma that exists around mental illness, which so many of us struggle to own. 

The purpose of this blog is to open up a conversation around shame. To bring light to the subject, for hope it might lose some of its power. I want to help you connect with your own shame. So that when you meet the pain of another, instead of turning away you might feel empathy, and decide to sit a while longer. As Brene Brown says, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive.”

Poverty, discrimination and grief

"Socioeconomically disadvantaged children and adolescents are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems."

My Dad’s childhood was tough. Nothing like my own. I sit here in my comfy house, feeling safe and secure, knowing I owe much of that to my Dad. He always provided. For that I am very grateful. But looking back, I'm sad for little Dad. He had to build a hard shield around that tender, vulnerable part of himself, so he could survive.

He was a Jewish boy, brought up on a council estate in the east end of London. I know school was tough, and he and his brother faced bullying. I have a feeling it was bad. Discrimination was part of life, and violence not uncommon. I don't know what he did, whether he fought back, or submitted. But I do know not fighting back would have been seen as a weakness. I'm not sure he was one to throw a punch. 

He lost his father when he was three, leaving his mother pregnant, alone, and destitute. If you knew my nan, you may begin to understand what life might have been like. Intense and emotional, and all about her own suffering. There would have been no space or place for little Dads struggles. So, he buried them deep inside, and the moment he could, he left home. 

Building a ‘worthwhile’ life 

My Dad was a “grafter”. He worked hard and managed to climb the ladder from local radio station to TV journalist for the BBC. He was a success, made his mother proud, kept himself busy and made a life and name for himself. He was popular, a work-a-holic and greatly admired. 

Things started to fall apart when my Dad lost his job at the BBC. He found another high-power role, but it was not long before he went off sick, and the cycles of ill mental health began. 

What I have come to discover, through suicide research conducted by Sane, is that this is not uncommon. Many suicidal people have worked super hard to create their sense of worth. Often possessing very little inner worth, they consider their worth as contingent. This means it is reliant on something else. In the case of my Dad, his role as a provider for our family. Without his job he felt worthless, unimportant and without value.

It was so painful to see him fall apart. The person I would call in an emergency, ask for advice, was no longer able to make a decision, or even look me in the eye. Sometimes my Mum would force him out of bed and he’d follow her around like a lost child. It makes me cry to remember.

"The people who stand the most chance of preventing suicides are ordinary people"

Most people who kill themselves are not in contact with mental health services. It's families and friends who support them. But we were so poorly equipped to help. The pressure on the family was immense. My Mum had to give up her job, my brother's hair fell out. 

Knowing the impact his mental illness had on the people he loved most, was unbearable for my dad. I remember one holiday, he’d been very unwell, but my mum dragged him out to the countryside. The morning after we arrived, he couldn't get out of bed. The shame he felt was so bad, he couldn't bear the thought of us seeing him like that. He lay there sobbing, telling me he was sorry. It broke my heart.

He felt so much pain, and so much shame for being mentally ill.

“Do you feel relief now he is gone?”

This was a question asked, by a not-so-close friend, in the tender vulnerable months that followed my dad’s death. What might shock you even more, is how much I welcomed the question, and the open conversation that followed. 

The reality was, after my dad’s suicide, most people didn't know what to say. Some people avoided me, others offered sympathetic looks and niceties. And at the time I needed them most, some of my closest friends weren't there. They didn't know what to say. They feared they might say the wrong thing. So, they said nothing.

Those months that followed were very lonely. It made me realise how people shy away from difficult conversations, and difficult people. 

Surround yourself with radiators not drains

I can't remember when I first heard this phrase, but it grates on me. 

I'd like to start by saying I get it. It's true. We are energy, and so affected by each other's energy. It is good practice to bring conscious awareness to your own and other people's energy. It is also important to protect your energy, and what capacity you have to be open and share with others.

But what if everyone took this advice? What if we all started gravitating towards happy positive people, and leaving behind 'drains'? What if you were struggling, you were the drain, how would this message feel then? Would it make you want to share how you feel or would you fear it might turn people away? Mental illness does not make for a good radiator. Let's stop and think about that.

Being with someone who is struggling with their mental health (or even having a hard week) is hard. It is difficult to sit in their discomfort, without being able to fix or mend them. But I've been told, there is huge value when you do.

Final words

We all have mental health, and we all are likely to struggle at some point in our lives. In any given year, one in four of us will have a mental illness, one in five of us suicidal thoughts. I live for a day where there is no shame to have dark thoughts and no judgement of ourselves or each other when we share them. Is that even possible? 

Let me know what you think - I'm happy to discuss and be challenged.