Guest blog – Evelyn Asante-Mensah OBE, Chair of Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust

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Mental Health is important to us all and it’s important that we talk about it to break down the barriers and fear surrounding it.  Life throws lots of things our way and we all like to think that we’re resilient and can cope. 

I have been living with long term physical conditions for a long time now and whilst I am able to do what I need to do, it has an impact on me mentally as well as physically. One day I received an unexpected phonecall from the pre-dialysis clinic, which hit me like a thunderbolt.  I knew that I ultimately need dialysis, however I was not expecting it or the impact it would have on my mental health.  It took me a while to come to terms with the diagnosis.  All whilst I was still dealing with the sudden loss of my dad.

Experiencing mental health difficulties

I got to a really low point and I ended up in a dark place. I didn’t want to acknowledge what was happening to me. I thought it would go away if I ignored it, and of course, that only makes things worse. Bottling things up can be so dangerous. We can only do it for so long because, at some point, that bottle will crack.

This isn’t the first time I have had to deal with my mental health, as a few years ago, I went to see my GP for something physical, I had also been feeling low.  During my consultation I asked her “How do you know if you’re depressed?” I then sat sobbing in front of her for about 30 minutes. I just cried and cried. I had a great GP, she was lovely and after a long chat, filled in a questionnaire, she told me she thought I was experiencing depression. She gave me some information about antidepressants.  I was really reluctant to take them, because my own internalised issues about pharmacological treatment (plus I was already taking shed load of medication!), so it was a while and after lots of conversations with family, friends and people I know, before I took them.

At first there were some really unpleasant side effects. It was horrible, sweating profusely whilst I was out shopping for example. But I then started to feel better, and had the impetus to get on and ‘do’ things.  After 18 months I felt I didn’t need the medication anymore, they had given me the space I needed, taken me over the hump. So with the support of my doctor, I slowly reduced the dose and eventually came off the pills.  Although I was scared at first, I’m glad I took them.

All of this has highlighted how important it is to acknowledge when you’re struggling. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and is so helpful to talk. The only thing more exhausting than having a mental illness is pretending you don’t. Often we feel we can’t, or we don’t want to acknowledge it, because we worry people will think less of us. Opening up is a courageous thing to do. It takes strength to pretend we’re fine, but it takes more strength to ask for help.

Physical and mental health are undisputedly connected, but we ignore our mental health it still needs more spotlight, more openness, more conversation and honesty.

One in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year and for me mental health can feel like a tightrope. Sometimes you can walk that tightrope and stay on, and other times you might fall off. But there are safety nets out there for when you fall off and they can help you get back to where you were before you fell off.

I’ve been working from home since the March lockdown because I’m in a high risk group. I’m not on my own in my home, but the feeling of isolation is sometimes hard. This pandemic is making it more vital than ever that we look after our mental health. It’s so important to do so.

I’ve had to find ways of protecting my wellbeing and part of that is acknowledging the days when life feels really tough and allowing myself to accept how I feel that day. In order to do that, I have to feel safe. And I’ve found that the more we talk about our mental health, and the more we acknowledge it, the safer we feel in talking about it.

My family

I have four children who I’ve always encouraged to be really open about their emotions. They have lots of resources that they can use to articulate how they feel. When our family went on holiday to Ghana several years ago, my daughter couldn’t come with us and so she prepared packs for her children, who were joining us. In this pack were letters for when they felt sad, happy, bored or angry. They could open them and read a personal message from their mum. I thought that was really special and so pleased they can open up and talk openly about they feel. We can learn so much from each other.

“Mental health is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.”

I am Ghanaian, and we historically don’t openly talk about mental health.  Demonic or ‘spirit possession’ is sadly still a common explanation for mental health problems in some cultures and parts of the world. People can be ostracised and even punished, for being ill.

We need to do everything we can to raise awareness and shatter stigma around mental illness. We need to promote what services are out there to support and help people. Encourage people to seek help and seek it early, to talk about it and not to be scared. Mental health is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.

People in leadership roles like mine are often expected to always be strong, or at least appear as if we can cope with everything that life throws at us. So, it can be hard to admit that we might be struggling.  In order to be open at work, you need to work in an organisation that has strong values of kindness and compassion, one where you feel safe to be open about who you are.   Every day feels a privilege to work at an organisation such as Pennine Care which has such dedicated and skilled staff caring for and transforming people’s lives. That why I want to take every opportunity to use my voice, and my personal experience, to amplify those voices that often aren’t heard. Speaking up and speaking out.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Very heart touching article Evelyn! I believe that sciences and religion can work in equilibrium in the aspect of mental health. There used to be a great person a long time ago called ghazzali, (I would recommend some reading of his works) who introduced islamic science!

    It’s nice to know that there’s always a way out of an impossible climb of a mountain. I have also suffered from schizophrenia half my life and imagining getting off medicine seems quite impossible and disheartening.

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  2. Like you, I have used medication a few times during difficult periods of my life. I continued working full-time and remained a high-functioning person. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for pharmaceutical help when we need it. Thank you for sharing your story!

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  3. This is a very interesting article. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. You are inspirational and despite the adversity you have faced you have managed to raise a family and hold down and progress in a very successful career! You should be very proud of yourself.

    Sadly the NHS is underfunded to deal with mental health at the best of times never mind in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic. Services that have been suspended will, I estimate, either resume at a later date or not resume at all. It all comes down to health commissioning and budgets that are forever depleting. Interesting observation regarding the links between physical and mental health. Sadly one is only treated once the other has manifested seriously enough for that.

    I am glad your GP was helpful and didn’t turn you away on the basis of a ten minute, one symptom appointment. Is anybody ever actually able to book a double appointment anyway?

    Self care is important but when not in the best headspace self care can feel insurmountable!

    It will be interesting whether we all do get free Slimming World or Weight Watchers memberships. Dieticians should not only intervene once we are diagnosed with diabetes. Preventative care is important but it does not reap immediate rewards so it will always be down the agenda. We cannot all afford personal trainers like Mr Johnson would advocate in his post Covid life!

    We should access services if we can and there is always somebody to talk to. Even if it is the Samaritans as opposed to qualified mental health practitioners.

    Thank you again for sharing your experiences and for offering hope.

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  4. Hi Evelyn,

    Thank you for sharing your story. It’s ALWAYS better to seek help.

    Also, sorry for your loss.

    Mental health is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all – how true!

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  5. I enjoyed reading this and admire you greatly for your strength! Mental health isn’t something to be ashamed of and we should openly speak and encourage those facing different struggles.

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