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It’s Okay Not To Be Okay

7 May 17 words: Alexander Chalkley

Alexander Chalkley is twenty six years old, and works as a Programme Manager. Living with severe anxiety and depression, we caught up with him in honour of Mental Health Awareness Week to talk about his own experience with mental health, in the hopes that it will encourage others to open up themselves.

Around the middle of 2016 I hit a rough patch in my personal and professional life and couldn’t connect the dots in my head anymore. I started feeling like a stranger among my friends, and even to myself. I realised that I no longer knew how to make myself happy, and the only solution my brain could offer was self-harm or suicide.

It took me longer than it should have to talk to someone about it. My partner at the time had been telling me that I was acting differently for a while and was harder to be around; in hindsight, I should have listened. When we broke up, I started to write my feelings down and took them to a GP amidst a particularly low patch.

Initially I was completely underwhelmed. Having told my GP that I wanted to kill myself, she casually told me I’d have to wait for twelve to sixteen weeks for therapy, and stuck me on a low dosage of medication; her perceived lack of compassion or solutions troubled me. I finally saw someone eighteen weeks later, following a cancelled first appointment. Since seeing Let’s Talk, I’ve become much more aware of my behaviours and triggers, and feel like I’m making progress towards recovery.

Where possible, I enjoy being outdoors and active; I’m fortunate enough to live by the canal so my morning well-being comes from seeing the geese and wildlife. Throughout the day, I try to be mindful, and make time for myself to read, journal and recognise the positives. If this isn’t enough to settle my mind, then I speak to friends who usually perk me up.

At first I felt obligated to talk about my mental health with others as my decline became more obvious and more public. I felt that colleagues and friends deserved to know that it was me, not them. Lately however, I embrace talking about it as a therapy of its own. I’m fortunate enough to work with young people for a living, and try to bring wellbeing and mental health care into everything I do with them. The responses have been phenomenal and knowing that you’re destroying a stigma by starting a conversation is so empowering.

I’ve not had a directly negative reaction from anyone, but one of my closest friends treats it with a cocktail of blasé and brush over. I’ve been a little shocked, but I’m not sure whether it’s their way of dealing with it, denial, or they’d rather just focus on other things as a way of distracting me.

The pub culture of jokes and mocking certainly exists, but I think you’d find it hard to see an area where it doesn’t. The real stigma comes from the media; with the tabloids treating mental health like a brush to tar the disfavoured of the day, and TV hyperbolizing mental health issues into explosive incidents, rather than the daily struggle it can often be. The Royal Family’s recent intervention has been phenomenal, but even then, certain columnists complain that they’d rather the Princes “put a sock in it for a bit and quit bleating on about their struggle for sanity.”

I think that stigma can certainly make you think twice before telling someone. I was terrified to tell my colleagues, just in case I was deemed unfit for work by association, and took a long time to tell my friends. I only shared after it had become obvious, and I wish I’d had the confidence to do so before then.

There absolutely has to be more done to encourage men to talk about their mental health; starting with education. Education begins at demolishing the clichés: we’re told endlessly that mental health is an invisible disease and yet this is a lie. A lie designed to propagate complacency and a walk-on-by attitude. In the ten years that followed 2003, nearly 20,000 people in the UK with mental health issues took their own life, and anxiety and depression is the estimated cause of one fifth of sick days from UK firms. People need to understand that it’s okay not to be okay, that they can talk and they should.

Alex’s Advice:
Acknowledge every achievement, no matter how small, no matter how banal. If you suffer from mental health issues and can still get up and go to work, then you’re a superhuman. Own it.

If you, or anyone you know, are struggling with your mental health, there are people that can help. You can freephone the Samaritans, any time, on 116 123.

The Samaritans website

Nottingham Insight Healthcare website

Mind website

CALM website

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