My wife Margy has suffered poor mental health since her teenage years. In light of the Kieren Fallon news and some social media comment, I thought I’d talk here about some of our experiences – Margy’s and mine – in the hope of casting some light. In 2006, after spending 10 months in a psychiatric unit, Margy decided she’d always take the opportunity to talk about depression and mental health. It’s her contribution to trying to remove the social stigma and increase understanding.
There are some cliches among sufferers: ‘If you have a broken leg, at least people can see and understand.’ ‘I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.’ On the latter, Margy said it to a fellow patient in the unit and he said, ‘I actually wish everybody could suffer it for just one hour.’
It’s impossible to explain unless you’ve experienced it. It’s nothing to do with ‘being crazy’ or pulling yourself together, and there are rarely events which can be nailed to explain the source of poor mental health (I generalise with ‘mental health’: it covers a broad range. Margy’s diagnosis is ‘severe anxiety and depression with psychotic episodes’. During those episodes she becomes terror-stricken by two ‘people’ who talk to her incessantly, always with evil intent. I found her one day in the bedroom (fortunately just in time) hitting herself in the face and head with a bottle to try and drive those voices out.
When deep depression strikes, she will simply lie in bed for days crying and apologising to me for ‘being such a burden’, despite my constant reassurances that the illness, like everything else in our lives, is ours, not hers. Sometimes we would sit on the bed by the window upstairs looking down on the road. At that time we lived a hundred metres from a cemetery. Going through one of her good periods a few summers ago, I came across Margy sitting there watching a funeral go past. I sat down beside her. She said quietly, ‘You have no idea the number of times I’d watch the hearse go by and wish above all else that I was the one in the coffin.’
On the severe anxiety aspect of Margy’s illness, I once tried to get some idea of its depth. I asked if she could try to explain to me what it was like. Again, she stared for a while out of that window and said, ‘I wake up in the morning and as soon as I come to, a voice says to me “the worst thing that could ever happen to you is going to happen and it’s going to happen very, very soon. The voice says the same thing all the time, all day, until I can sleep again.”
I tell you all this not to sensationalise, not to seek sympathy, but to try to help you understand…to try to chisel away just some of the stigma. To urge those who need help to see their GP now and if the GP can’t or won’t help, get a new GP.
Much of the treatment is based on getting the correct medication mix and dose. Margy’s pharmacist once told me there are 64 different types of anti-depressant. The solution is often a cocktail of these and dosage is crucial; after almost three years, the professionals got Margy to a stage where her medication allowed her to live a comparatively peaceful life. These days, she has ECT treatment, which has helped greatly (it works for some people, but can have negative effects on others).
Recent research, thank goodness, has revealed that there might well be physiological causes to many mental health problems – inflammation somewhere in the brain looks as though it could be playing a part. I hope this research goes somewhere. Not just because it should lead to quicker and more effective solutions, but because it will, at last, offer a physical cause, something that people can identify with. Something that removes the stigma, the pull yourself togethers, the suspicions of childhood trauma, or lack of success in your career.
That stigma stops many from seeking treatment. Fear of stigmatization prevents people telling their doctors; they don’t want it on record for employers, or insurance companies, or maybe legal cases at some future point. So they suffer in silence and sometimes that silence and suffering leads to suicide and the stigma deepens.
It’s time to talk about it. It’s time to try to understand it. It’s time to stop condemning people like Kieren Fallon for not turning up for a ride. The chances are that Kieren wasn’t sitting lazily on a riverbank in the sun. He might have been in a darkened room somewhere, watching hearses pass, and wishing.