Our latest guest blog post is by Mrs Bingham, who wrote to the girls during Mental Health Awareness Week with some reflections on how to talk about mental ill health.
On Monday you heard from an amazing role model – one of our former pupils, Karen Pollock CBE – who spoke to you about her work for the Holocaust Educational Trust. She was self-assured, eloquent and purposeful. Her assembly was brilliant. And yet she was very nervous about coming to speak to you all, and she could hardly believe that she had been nominated as Alumna of the Year. In other words, being a strong person is not about feeling strong all the time.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. I really celebrate the fact that society talks about mental health more openly. It has helped to destigmatise mental ill health and we have become a more understanding society in the process. As we continue to talk about mental health, I hope that we develop a better understanding that mental health exists on a spectrum. Sometimes the way in which society talks about mental health can make it feel as if there is some divide between those who are ‘well’ and those who are ‘ill’.
There are some people who sadly struggle with mental ill health for a very significant portion of their lives. Alastair Campbell, former Press Secretary to Prime Minister Tony Blair in the late 1990s and early part of the millennium, has suffered from depression for nearly his whole adult life. But if I met Alastair Campbell, I would think of him as a multi-faceted human being who has achieved great things in his life. He spent ten years at the very centre of power. He has written fascinating diaries about his time in office. He has also courted very significant controversy over his involvement in Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq. I know he is also a runner, and a father to three children. I know he loves football and Scotland. I also know he has depression and that his mood varies from day to day. But I would never, ever seek, if I met him, to reduce him to that one facet of his existence. He has depression, yes, but depression is only one part of his experience. That does not mean that at its worst, his depression is not crippling and debilitating. It absolutely is. But he is never just his depression.
There are plenty of other examples of famous people who have suffered from mental ill health and who continue to do so. Stephen Fry, the comedian, is another example. He has had a long battle with bipolar disorder. He has compared having the illness to his own ‘personal weather’ and he has two wise comments on this theme. He has said that there are: ‘two mistakes…to deny that it’s raining…and to say, therefore my life is over. It’s raining and the sun will never come out.’ When a celebrity like Stephen Fry talks publicly about their struggle with mental health, it helps to normalise mental ill health. But it does something else, in my view. It reminds us that we are all so much more than one facet of our experience. Stephen Fry suffers from bipolar episodes but he is also a talented comedian, writer and presenter.
We are all so much more than one facet of our experience.
Stephen Fry and Alastair Campbell have lived rich, fulfilling lives. I have friends who have had, at various points in their lives, battles with mental ill health. But to me, they are just my friends. My point is that there is no magic moment when you suddenly become capable of managing all your emotions. There is no magic moment when you suddenly become super-resilient. Over time, most of us learn skills to support our mental health. We learn what sorts of things make us stressed, anxious, or unhappy. We learn what gives us energy, inspiration and restoration.
Some of us learn to live with mental ill health, like Alastair Campbell and Stephen Fry. Some of us experience challenges for the first time, having sailed through our younger years with relative ease.
There is no magic moment when you suddenly become super-resilient.
Sometimes labels are useful and for someone suffering from a mental health condition a diagnosis can be very helpful. But nobody should ever feel reduced to a label. We are all too complex, too multi-faceted for that, and our lives are too rich a tapestry of experiences to take such a reductionist approach. That is why human beings are so eternally fascinating and inspiring. Many of us have to live with mental ill health to differing degrees of acuteness and for differing lengths of time. We live with it but nobody should define us by it.