Why I do what I do.
It’s a Saturday morning, and I’m sitting on a train from London headed to nearly the top of Scotland. I’m giving a talk to pre-med and psychology students at the University of St Andrews regarding mental health stigma and sex/relationships for their weekend of lectures. I look over my notes for the event – I’ll talk for a bit, take some questions, and two hours later, my part of the symposium will be over, and I’ll take the small village train back to Edinburgh and catch the sleeper train back into London to meet the dawn. Things like this, getting up and talking about mental health, and anti-stigma initiatives, have become second nature to me. The faces change – students this week, journalists a month ago, politicians in a few days – but the subject matter stays the same. We all have minds, and therefore, we all have mental health. But one in four of us, at some point in our lives, will have a mental health issue. So, let’s build a society that helps each other, rather than lives in ignorance and fear of what a mental health issue is.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder over 10 years ago, and at the time, I saw it as a death sentence. It took nearly four years of hard therapy to even wrap my head around the concept of living with this disease, rather than dying from it, and while I’ve managed a stable relationship and great kid in the meantime, I’m always wary of this invisible illness that dances on my synapses. I recognize that right now, I’m considered lucky – my bipolar has been officially declared “in remission”. I know this can change at any moment, and I have to be prepared for what could happen to me and my family if my mental health takes a turn for the worse.
I suppose it’s why I ‘m a media volunteer here in the UK, speaking to journalists on how to talk about mental health in the press, and why the words they use are so important. It’s why I give lectures to pre-med students, insisting that they treat mental health issues with the same parity they’d treat any physical ailment. It’s why I write about mental health issues, from national trends in politics and policy, as well as my own personal experience. I speak now for those who cannot currently speak for themselves. I speak for my son, who will grow up in a world with much more openness regarding mental health issues, but where so much more work with anti-stigma needs to be done. I speak for myself in case the future of my illness isn’t so kind, and I find myself unable to speak out later.
Yet I worry. In all the strides we’ve made as mental health campaigners, the tidal wave of ignorance sometimes seems overwhelming. I speak with lived experience experts who tell me that they’ve been cut off from their families as a result of an illness they didn’t ask for. I watch with rage as medical care is slashed, virtually guaranteeing the most vulnerable like the transient populations within large cities, the elderly, and former military on benefits will feel the cuts deeper than anyone else. I remember the looks I would get at the outpatient mental health ward where I met my psychiatrist once a week through my pregnancy, and again through my early months of motherhood. I always found it odd that the most piteous looks came not from the staff, but from other patients. Their eyes seemed to say “Why bring a child into your world of madness? Why bother?” So often the biggest stigma came from within, and later, from others in the mental health community, and that self-stigma was only strengthened by a society and government that seemed all too willing to brush all of us under the carpet, away from ‘normal’ society’s eyes.
It’s now evening, and I’m settling in at the small train station waiting for my evening ride to Edinburgh. The talk went well – they asked a lot of questions, laughed when I hoped they would, and listened when I needed them to. I check the hashtag of the conference on twitter, and a tweet from one of the students in attendance catches my eye. “Your talk…came at an important time for me so I want to thank you for your inspiring and informative words. :)” While the platform is freezing, I’m suddenly warmed, and beaming. This is why I speak out – for that magical moment when my words happen to hit the ears of someone who needs to hear it.
And the best part is, all of us have the capacity for that moment. I’m not a neuroscientist, or a doctor. I’m an academic, but the degree I’m working on is my MBA, not psychology. I only have my life experience to base my writing and lectures on. Yet when I speak out about my experiences, the response is almost uniformly the same: Someone who wanted to speak out, responds. Someone learns that having a mental health issue does not mean they are a bad person. Someone finds the courage to start a discussion about mental health. This is why I do that I do.
Starting a conversation about mental health is scary. Depending on where you live in the world, and your community or family’s beliefs about mental illness, you could put yourself in a difficult situation regarding your home life, your job, your status in your society. But for me, living in silence was scarier, so I chose to speak out, and I don’t regret it. I speak out to reclaim power from this illness, to reclaim my voice over it, and to reclaim what mental health means in society.
Thanks for listening.
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Shea Wong is a writer, mental health campaigner, and graduate student. When she isn’t talking to people about mental health or writing strange little stories inspired by her adopted London, she likes to collect and restore vintage fountain pens, teach her kid how to cook, and is currently sending off paperwork for dual citizenship so she can rock her homeland’s US passport as well as a UK one. She hopes you are having a kick ass day.
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