Our awareness and understanding of mental health as a society is undoubtedly the greatest it has ever been. According to the statistics, 14.2% more adults received treatment for common mental illness in 2014 than in 2000. This shift among many other positive indications shows our progress on a societal level. Collectively we are more equipped to spot signs of common mental illness than ever before, in not just ourselves but those around us too.
However, although our collective awareness is at an all-time high, on an institutional level there seem to be gaps in the support available. The preparedness of institutions, and consequently the support they are able or willing to provide, is disproportionate to the number of people who seek support. These institutions, in my experience, are only responsive to pleas for support when the symptoms you present are at a critical level.
While undertaking an internship at university I struggled with anxiety over an extended period and I noticed symptoms that were directly related to my new work environment. On arriving to work almost every day after a series of particularly awful experiences with colleagues and even my employer, I experienced what I now recognise as symptoms of panic attacks - which I had never experienced previously. Noticing these symptoms, I sought help from my university on three separate occasions. However, my symptoms were dismissed, so much so I began to gaslight myself into thinking my symptoms were not real. Until I experienced what to date remains one of the scariest and loneliest occurrences of my life; an overwhelming sensation of fear paralysed me and I was afraid I was going to die.
I had a panic attack. It was my first panic attack and I had never experienced such fear and loneliness simultaneously.
I was never offered help from my university and although I was fortunate enough to eventually seek help privately and undergo Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I am now better than I was and adequately equipped to manage my anxiety. I cannot help but think how I would not have had to go through one of the most isolating experiences of my life, had my symptoms been treated earlier on. It is disheartening to think of those who are unable to access help and support. According to NICE, in 2014 only 47% of people felt that the mental health support provided to them had been adequate for their needs, and this satisfactory rate was 43% in 2018; meaning only less than half of the UK's population that experienced mental illness felt they were adequately supported.
Sadly, I see patterns of my experience echoed in the media where people have not been provided with the support they require until they have hit rock bottom. Most notably Megan Markle. Watching her CBS interview was a triggering and uncomfortable experience for me as I am sure it was for many others; especially hearing her say "I just didn’t want to be alive anymore — and that was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought". It was a painful reminder that the apathy and lack of support from institutions, even those with a wealth of resources, continue to deprive people who are struggling mentally of the support they need.
The most devastating reminder from her interview was the fact that she, like many of us who will experience mental illness in our lifetimes, noticed the symptoms and asked for help. But just like most of us, was denied and gaslit into believing that her struggles with mental illness were inconsequential until she hit rock bottom and nearly took her own life.
We should not have to reach this point mentally before our concerns are taken seriously. Institutions should be equipped to provide support at every stage of mental illness before it is too late.
Written by Jasmine Okpeku
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