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26Jun

Beautiful Malfunctions

18 to 30 represents for an adult, the key years in which fundamental building blocks and foundations of life are laid, and probably the best years of your life. So, why are young Londoners bugged down with mental health challenges?

mental healthAustin Clark is 23, he enjoys rollerblading, In-line and Gator skating, loves rap music and enjoys spending time in the music studio. He hopes to one day, become either a television or radio presenter. However, Austin is not your average 23 year old. He is schizophrenic and has been for three years as well as being physiologically unwell since he was 18.

According to experts, 18 to 30 is that critical part of life where youngsters make choices about the future, education, career, relationships and the future. Their mental health is also an essential part of that process and what makes them the adult that they become. For Austin, that reality has been the opposite. While he points out that his ailment was “gradual,” he also traces his mental illness back to when he got depressed after being sent to jail for Taking and Driving Away (TDA). “I went to jail and that knocked me for six. I lost my confidence, my self-esteem, my social powers and I lost a lot of things. I became very depressed. I was in deep depression,” says Austin.

Described by mental health experts as a range in moods, from feeling low to severe problems that could potentially harm your daily life and is sometimes overwhelming, it is estimated that depression affects three per cent of adolescents in any given year according to the British Medical Association (BMA,) while figures from the office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 1 in 6 people will experience depression in their life time. Though there is no one cause for depression in young people, they are often prone to experience depression for a number of reasons, such as stress and anxiety, traumatic experiences like losing a parent, sexual abuse and neglect, as well as changes in some brain chemicals of the individual. Some common symptoms include loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness among many others.

What is now worrying according to experts is the rise in the number of young men who attempt suicide due to depression. Austin says he felt suicidal when he was released from jail. “I felt suicidal when I first came out of jail and every time life seems really hard and I can’t see to the future, that’s when suicide thoughts knock on my door.”

depressionWhile depression is becoming prevalent among young people due to a range of social, psychological and physical circumstances, it can also lead to other forms of mental illnesses. In the case of Austin who was depressed when his mental health challenges began but was later told he was schizophrenic. Schizophrenia according to mental health experts is one of the most common forms of psychosis; a dramatic disturbance in an individual’s thoughts, emotional well-being and perceptions of their immediate environment, and those affected by it tend to withdraw from the company of other people. Austin has in times past experienced some of this and describes it as “adventurous, scary, and baffling.” However, he is not angry or bitter. “I don’t think it is unfair because what I did was bad,” and believes the punishment was deserved for the time he spent in jail for TDA. “I deserved the punishment I got but at the same time, life is a struggle, then I do think why me.”

He is not alone in his struggles and the reality of living with a mental health condition. Susan Brown is 30 years old. She loves to sing, paint and is a classically trained pianist as well as an avid fan of jazz music. She counts Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday among her influences. Like Austin, her illness also started with depression. “I think I must have been about 14 and it all started when my parents couldn’t afford for me to go to boarding school anymore. I went out of school and I got very depressed” she says. However, she did not know what she was dealing with until recently when she was diagnosed with Bi-Polar Affective Disorder, also known as manic depression. A mood disorder which makes the affected individual experience both high and low mood swings. Like depression, it is caused by stressful situations and traumatic events, and its symptoms are similar. It is believed that most people experience their first episode of bi-polar in their late teens or early twenties and one per cent of the population suffer from it at some point in their life. For Susan who didn’t know what was happening to her, she explains it as “Because I was bipolar, you can be very high and you can be very low. So, when you are in your high, you don’t know that you might swing to the low.” Though she has now come to grips with her condition, Susan is also quick to point out that it has helped her develop as an artist. “Well it’s strange because I have always wanted to be a musician and here at Core Arts, I am.”

Core Arts, is an arts and a multi-media college based in Hackney, East London and has been running for the last 17 years. Their mission statement is “to support and promote the work of people with mental health problems.” Paul Monks, the artistic director says that one way they aim to improve the lives of those with mental health is by giving them a space to actually take stock and be creative. However, he points out that he is also aware of what they can and cannot do for the individuals who walk through their doors. “We are not saying that we are therapists, we are saying that we give people space to come and develop their skills in the arts,” he says. He admits that youngsters do walk through their doors and from his experience, “They appear slightly more vulnerable. A lot of people, the problems don’t materialise until their late teens.”

Core Arts is home to both Austin and Susan and they are involved in the music workshops organised weekly. They have unlimited access to the music studio, where they create their own music. Susan believes that “going through things in life can actually help you be a better artist” and it was while she was an in-patient at the London’s Homerton hospital that she met Paul, another mental health patient, who was at the hospital playing the guitar to other mental health patients. “I started singing with him and now we have been playing for over a year and we are doing really well.” She says. She also acknowledges the irony that exists between her art and her mental health condition. “It helps in some funny sort of way and it’s a catch22 in some sort of way…because it fuels your art to go through things and it helps you get out of the condition.” Susan says her music Her music has been her saving grace. “If you are feeling depressed, you work the feelings through if you start writing a song or singing a song, you uplift yourself.”

mental healthBoth Austin and Susan admit to having troubles relating to people when they are having a crisis. For Susan, it is about finding a balance in order to relate to people. She believes feeling either depressed or being on the high or low side of bi-polar can be a bit difficult to connect with, “Its like you are riding your own mission,” she says. For Austin, it’s the lack of good communications skills. Like Susan, Austin has social workers and takes medication for his conditions. The social worker and their families serve as their support network. However, they do express that it is sometimes hard for anyone to really understand what they are feeling. Austin says of his family when he first got sick, “I don’t think they understood what was wrong with me. They probably thought I was experiencing something that is like going through life.” And he does not believe they knew how deep he was in depression and how messed he was. “I don’t really know how it has affected them,” he says. Susan says her family has always been there for her. “They have done really well but it’s always hard to say really because sometimes, it seems that they can get tangled up by mistake.”

Their point of view is equally shared by Maybelline Daniels, who is 32 and has suffered from Bi-polar for the last 13 years. However, she points out that her condition may have been drug induced, “To be quite honest, I was smoking at the cannabis at the time, so I think it was induced psychosis.” This is what mental health experts refer to as drug induced psychosis triggered off by taking street drugs such as cannabis. She also points out that she was suffering from postnatal depression after the birth of her first child and it also contributed to her ill health. Psychosis can affect a person’s mood, personality, behaviour and perception the same way schizophrenia and bi-polar does. She also finds it hard to relate to people sometimes, especially at the beginning, “I found it difficult at first because when you are hospitalised, you are very secluded, and you are only with people that have mental health issues. Coming into the world and having to relate to other people normally was very hard,” she explains.

Though she has now learnt to cope by taking it one step at a time. Maybelline also has a support network around her which she has found at the Homerton Friends Lodge, also in Hackney, an extension of Mind, the national mental health charity. She has a social worker and is on medication. On her family, she says, “To be quite honest, they have been supportive in the fact that they will take me to the GP or to the hospital but I don’t think they are fully aware of the illness.” She says there are times when she feels like a burden, however, she does not begrudge anyone because “To be honest, I don’t really understand myself. So, I won’t expect them to” she says.

For Austin, Susan and Maybelline, their self-image has altered greatly since they started living with the realities of mental health. Maybelline said, “I find that I am not as confident as I used to be in my younger days, even to talk to people is quite hard and I find it difficult to build and maintain relationships and I don’t feel good about myself all the time.” Austin admits to lost confidence and Susan says putting on weight is a contributing factor to one’s self image for anyone affected by mental health. A reality she can identify with as she sometimes struggles with her weight. However, she adds that “With the right support and guidance, losing weight becomes easier and yourself image improves.” While their self image sometimes takes the plunge, they are also keen on improving their daily life and the future. Susan plays her part “By keeping occupied and my feet on the ground” she says. On her future, she would like to go back and finish her degree in the history of arts which she abandoned due to her ill health but her ultimate dream is “to get married and have kids.” For Michael, it is “not hanging out with the wrong crowd, not smoking cannabis, eating healthy” he says and he hopes to “dig into the media, keep focused and build myself up in every area.”

mental healthMaybelline knows the value of feeling significant having not worked in 10 years due to her mental health challenges. She plans on starting the IT course offered by Mind and is currently a member of an employment project also operated by Mind, a scheme that gives users alike, the opportunity to decide who works with the charity. “I feel empowered, I feel quite important. It’s nice to be asked” she says. “I appreciate it, I feel valued. I feel appreciated.” As for the future, she said, “I would like to think that one day, I’ll be able to work again, full time.”

Meanwhile their plans are based on what each day is like because they all have good and bad days. A good day for all three is to be able to go out and carry on with normal life. While a bad day is basically “when you just don’t want to get out of bed” explains Susan. A point that is resonant with all of them. While they have hopes for the future, they would also like to speak to other youngsters about the realities of mental health. Maybelline says it would be, “to stop smoking because it can ruin your life and the lives of those around you” and her views are equally shared by Michael and Susan. Who point out the importance of looking after yourself, “You need to look at your lifestyle. Be active and healthy and if you start to experience any problems, to speak up before it’s too late” says Susan.

All the same, the fear of stigma which surrounds mental health means that young people are often reluctant to talk about their problems or seek help. According to the British Medical Journal (BMJ) mental health is still one of the most stigmatised illnesses which results in discrimination against those affected by it. A point of view shared by Matilda MacAttram, director of Black Mental Health UK, she believes that it is “One of the travesties of the 21st Century, the fact that there is so much stigma. Mental health is not a terminal illness but the stigmas attached to it make it that way,” she says.

stigmaPrejudice, discrimination and ignorance are some of the stigmas attached to mental health and as pointed by Paul Monks of Core Arts, the reason it is deeply rooted within society is due to “Ignorance, it can only be ignorance” he says. He believes “Everyone has their own little journey and no one is immune. We can flip at any moment and we all have mental health.” The question is how good it is because it goes up and down the line. His views are reiterated by Maybelline, “I think its ignorant for people to turn around and say a person is mad because they have got depression” and as far as she is concerned, “there is no such word as normal. Everyone has a bit of madness in them.” she says.

The role of the media according to Paul heightens the stigma that already exits. “They play a part. “It’s easier to sell the story of a ‘nutter’ goes wild with machete and kills innocent people,” because it is guaranteed headline but it distorts the picture. It is his belief that the aim would be to create positive images and messages about mental health. Matilda on the other hand believes says “Discussing it within the community is a way forward.” She stresses that mental health is not quantifiable. You cannot take a test for it. “People have episodes and people recover. Mental health is not a life time condition. It is like any other ailment, diabetes and kidney failure. People go to the hospital, they recover and call it a day. It should also be the same with mental health.” She highlights the value of having anti-stigma campaigns by the government. However that role falls down to society because, “It starts with us waking up and the fact that we cannot afford to not talk about this. It is too expensive, it is taking lives. We cannot afford the luxury of stigma, it is too pricey.”

For Austin, Susan, Maybelline and other youngsters affected by the same issue that may well be the way forward to achieving their goals of leading a normal life


Some names have been changed.

Images

1 – Courtesy of Ontario MD groups Web site

2 -Vision website (Insights and New Horizons)

3 – Mental health Mask – Fresno County website

4 – United Nations Mental health media website (World Mental Health Day Observance)

5 – VAWatchdog online

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