In this testimonial, Fabien Littel shares his own experiences with mental health.
This Mental Health Awareness Week is themed around anxiety. The Mental Health Foundation defines anxiety as our response to feeling threatened, under pressure or stressed. Mind calls it a “natural human response”, which happens to most people, and in fact can help by putting us in a greater state of alert to help us face and respond to a threat. So, when does it become problematic? When the intensity of the feelings and physical symptoms it triggers becomes overwhelming, if they last for a long time, and become disproportionate with the situation, or out of control. Simply put, when it stops you from doing the things you want or need to do in your day-to-day life. While it is temporary for many people, for others it is an ongoing disorder which they need to find ways to manage as effectively as they can. Help and support come in different forms, and indeed what is most effective will vary from one person to another. The pages I linked above provide information on where best to seek help, and further self-help can also be found from the charity Anxiety UK.
Sharing and talking about your mental health challenges can be daunting, and indeed stressful in its own right. I have been diagnosed with clinical depression 15 years ago - realising then that I had been living with the symptoms for as long as I can remember - yet it took me another 10 years to start opening up about it. Fully appreciating now how critical it is to normalise these types of discussion, I am very happy to contribute to them by sharing my own experiences.
One thing that I believe such discussions can help with, and a side of experiences with anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges which I believe is of utmost importance, is that of self-acceptance. Most people will have seen or heard somewhere that “it’s ok not to be ok”. But what does it really mean?
I have given this much thought over the past few years as part of my own mental health journey, and gone back to my upbringing in a small farming community in Eastern France, the environment in which I spent the first 16 years of my life, and the culture and expectations which came with it. Looking back, I realise that there was a very narrow description of what it was thought to mean to be “normal” (which would also have a significant impact on my experience as a gay man, but that is for another article!). And living in a small community, which for some might mean a greater source of support, felt for me like being under close scrutiny from all those around, with a fear of being judged and called out when not being seen as complying with those expectations or standards.
How does that connect with experiences of mental health? I clearly remember situations I have gone through at that time which would have triggered severe stress and feelings of anxiety, only to be told that it was “all in my head”. So far, so accurate, except that, at the time, the actual meaning of that phrase was that those feelings weren’t real or valid, and in the same way that I’d allowed them to get into my head, that I should get them right out. In other words, “snap out of it!”. I would often also be faced with the arguments that others could cope with whatever the situation was, and therefore so should I. In an environment where social pressure was strong, standing out or breaking rank because of your feelings simply wasn’t a thing.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and reframing the phrase “it’s all in my head” formed a large part of my experience with managing my mental health, moving from what it used to mean earlier in my life, towards thinking “yes, it most definitely is in my head, and therefore I should pay attention to it, and think about how I can address it”. Understanding this was an important step in finding the strength to seek help. Alongside this, the notion of what “being normal” was perceived to mean also followed me for a long time, and the constant compulsion to compare myself to others, thinking that, if they could face a situation without being overcome by stress or anxiety, so should I. I now know how damaging such thinking can get.
Ultimately, these matters connect to ideas of respect and inclusion, understanding that what we might have once been told was “normal” behaviour stemmed from privileged standards, and not only didn’t represent many others, but also worked against them. Appreciating that certain conditions need care and support, rather than judgment - but also that not everyone needs to be “fixed”, sometimes they just need to be understood.
So, of course, it’s ok not to be ok. But most importantly, it’s ok to be you, with your very own thoughts, feelings, and reactions, all of which are valid, here for a reason, and deserve to be given attention, care and support.