ASLI Project Development and Social Justice Administrator Becky Saunders, 30, from Portsmouth,UK submitted a piece of nonfiction writing about her experience with mental illness and we also got to ask her our “artists” interview questions to get her take on this important campaign.
Can you tell us about your own experiences with mental illness?
Mental illness has been a prominent and distinctive part of my whole life, as you will probably gauge from my poem “The family heirloom”. I have not looked after my own mental health well at all over the years and have suffered in various ways shapes and forms since my teens. When you grow up surrounded by mental illness you don’t really know any different, it is only now that I’m seeing my life, my behaviours, my emotions and my actions, for what they really are and I’m now focusing on being kind to myself and learning to regulate my emotions and manage my thoughts and behaviours.
How does your artistic /creative expression help you with your mental health?
I find instant relief in spelling out the thoughts and emotions I did not know how to vocalise. It also helps me not to get stuck and dwell on these feelings, once they’re out there on paper I can move on with my thought process. I’ve also found it to be a really useful reflection tool, it’s nice looking back at a dark place and being grateful that I don’t always feel like that anymore. And when I am feeling dark then I can look back and relate to my own emotions and how I came through it when I felt that way before.
Have you ever experienced being stigmatised or marginalised due to your mental health or have you seen this happen to someone else?
I’m pretty sure that if I actually had a diagnosis label then I would have experienced a shit load of stigma, socially and in employment. I’ve seen people’s reactions to my behaviours over the years, if I’d had a label for them I’m sure there would have been far more judgement over the years. I’ve always noticed how quick people are to discriminate and stereotype without knowing the first thing about what they are talking about, I’ve also seen the damage this ‘othering’ does, to individuals and society itself.
Have you ever received treatment for mental health and if so, what was it, did it help and was it private or state funded?
I have had counselling a few times since my teens, it’s always been state funded and has had too much of a prescriptive timescale. I’m now with a local drug and alcohol support service, state funded for 12 weeks then luckily I have been able to continue with the service at a small cost. I had found my previous experiences helpful at that time in my life but I now understand that these barely skimmed the surface, I was still left to carry my baggage around for years because I was never provided with the space to unpack it. It is only now after having ongoing support for 7 months that I have been able to open up and analyse things properly and start to face up to things.
Do you think society and culture is accepting of people with mental illness?
I so wish I could say yes to this question. I think there is much more awareness of mental illness now than there ever has been but in raising this awareness it has opened up a whole other level of un-acceptance. The supposed social “norms” that exist in our society are so deeply ridged that people don’t even see them. The media certainly have allot to answer for, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish!
How do you feel your Government in your country helps people with mental illness and could they do more?
I don’t think the system in the UK works well at all, I know so many people who have had bad experiences, have been let down by services, not been provided with the correct care or treatment and have experienced the damage that can do. I feel that some of the support services offered seem almost naive and a waste of funds. I also think politicians pay lip service to mental health as a crowd pleaser and that allot of the time government policy surrounding mental health is not worth the paper it’s written on or the efforts made in implementing it. Unfortunately it just seems to fall down the cracks of the NHS despite the fact that it affects more people now than it ever has. I should imagine this will only get worse with the further budget cuts planned for public services, another one of those fish kettles!
Have you ever had any creative therapies as part of your treatment, did it help?
I have taken some of my poetry to my counselling sessions, this has proven very useful as it has provided a window into my darkest and most private thoughts. We had an ASLI art therapy session and I found it very relaxing and insightful, I can see how it could be a very useful tool in the recovery process.
Do you think artistic / creative expression can be used to help people with mental health problems?
I think that creative expression should be promoted as a life skill, it should be encouraged more from early years through to adulthood. Children naturally want to draw, perform, write stories etc, there is obviously something naturally expressive within that that we miss out on in adulthood as society starts to mould and shape us for their own agenda. If everybody was more artistically creative I genuinely think that the world would be a better place.
Do you think artistic / creative expression could help raise awareness and communicate how mental illness affects people?
I absolutely do, my poetry comes from a place that I couldn’t vocalise within a conversation, I don’t think I’m alone on that one. You just couldn’t get the same emotion and raw honesty across without it being expressed in such a manner.
What made you want to get involved with ASLI’s MENTAL ILLNESS, HEALTH AND RECOVERY CAMPAIGN?
I am very passionate about mental health and recovery, I don’t feel this world sets us up to be kind to ourselves, quite the opposite. I think sharing our own narratives, insights and experiences is very important to promote well being, understanding and togetherness.
Do you believe in more rights for mentally ill people in the workplace and for equal opportunities?
I think it is a disgrace that hidden disabilities are not given the same weight as physical disabilities in most work environments, although the rights of the physically disabled could be questioned as to whether they truly exist legally. The benefit that society as a whole would gain in just being more flexible, more supportive and more open is a huge missed opportunity and in allot of cases a further debilitating factor to those who just need to be nurtured in a different way.
We at ASLI want to de-stigmatize diagnosis labels within mental illness so that people treat others and their own mental health label as that of a diabetic or any other chronic “physical” illness, as we know the brain is physical and this would further improve stigma and marginalising mental illness. How do you feel about diagnosis labels?
I don’t have a diagnosis, I’ve spent allot of my life thinking that I’m never going down that path because of my family experiences. Maybe I will have to at some point in my life, I know there have been times when perhaps I should have sought further “support” but I’m not planning to anytime soon. I know people with a diagnosis that having that label has been right for them, they can perhaps now understand themselves a little better, they have used it to inspire, to promote, to move on with their lives knowing what lies ahead and working out the best way to deal with themselves. I also know people who have let it completely define them, taken what that diagnosis means and just drowned in it regardless of what else exists in their lives. I guess it’s an individual thing and also probably very dependant on how that diagnosis is given and what support follows it. I have talked about this allot in my sessions and my counsellor always asks me ‘what is hearing that news going to do for you, to your life?’ and right now it will probably make things worse for me and how I feel about who I am but that’s due to my own personal circumstances.
Everyone within ASLI is affected in some way by mental illness, with our MD having several chronic mental illnesses and other members either caring for or dealing with mental health issues. Would this make you think twice about working with ASLI? And does this make ASLI “less professional” in your opinion and if so why?
Quite the opposite! I think that being able to offer that personal experience, a true narrative should be an absolute positive factor.
Are there any artists/creatives/performers which you admire, who suffer from mental illness that you feel use their work to discuss or highlight mental health?
Charlotte Farhan, on her ASLI quest and all of the other movements she is involved with. I am truly inspired by her total commitment to social justice, to her values and how she has put herself ‘out there’ to raise awareness of mental health, and many other world issues. I know this isn’t easy sometimes, that the ignorant do also have a voice but despite this she continues to share her journey. I am so proud that she has inspired such an eager movement and I am very excited to be a part of it. I don’t really follow allot outside of my little bubble but I do know there are certain celebrities that are utilising their position in society to raise awareness and I believe this has made a difference. I do find it unfortunate that society is so fickle that it takes the rich and famous to bring things to the attention of the minds of the majority.
My journey in a nutshell – By Becky Saunders
After my first year of studying a social work degree my brain was full of psychological and philosophical theories and intervention strategies. I was armed ready to go out on placement; full of enthusiasm to begin to really help people, to inspire change for people’s lives, to actually make a difference. I thought I was in the best place I’d ever been, I knew where my life was heading, who I was, what I wanted…… I couldn’t have been much further from the truth! Once our summer break began my behaviours changed, I had time on my hands for the first time in my adult life and I couldn’t cope. I could not sit still, could not just be and physically could not spend any time alone, with myself. I was drinking excessively, starting to dabble with drugs again and got myself into a relationship with completely the wrong person; someone on a completely different path to me. Someone whose problems I could consume myself with so I didn’t have to think about me; I was in self destruct distract mode. Looking back on this now it was like I was literally running from the giant magnifying glass that then hovered over me after everything I’d learnt at uni and how much of it applied to my life.
Over the years my own story had become insignificant to me, it was all just stuff that had happened in the past. What I began to realise was that I hadn’t dealt with any of it in a healthy way, I hadn’t really dealt with any of it at all. Since I hit my teens I had been using drugs, alcohol, sex and relationships, even work, as addictive and destructive distraction techniques. Resilience, and lots of it, had been keeping me afloat all this time and as soon as I hit 30 I ran fresh out of it! I had a complete meltdown last year, I hurt myself and above all I scared myself. I can see now what happened last summer, I sought to crash and burn and that is exactly what I did. I couldn’t keep the lid on my pan, it was boiling over; I was avoiding myself, my life, my past and as it turns out I always have been!!
Since then I have been abstinent from anything that triggers my unhealthy behaviours, this has also had to include relationships with some close friends and family. Without all these distractions I am slowly discovering who I really am, this sobriety has given me the strength to open my eyes and begin to tackle my internal struggles. It has been and continues to be a difficult process where allot of the time it has felt like someone else is now performing my life. With nothing to hide behind I have felt so alone, so vulnerable, really like a child at times, but embracing these emotions has allowed me to begin to process things and move on with my life. The unnatural feeling of happiness brought about through avoidance and ignorance is a difficult one to replace but I now know that my life is better lived on an even keel than seeking those distractive highs that inevitably end with an even further distracting low.
I have discovered so much about myself and my life since being sober, I had lived so ignorantly for such a long time. I have been attending weekly counselling sessions for 7 months now, this has very much helped me to apply my past to my unhealthy coping strategies and start to put things into context and develop new ways of dealing with things. Even after all this time each session brings up a new revelation about something that I need to get my head around. I was also recommended a book by a good friend, thank you so much Lisa for pointing me to this. Women who love too much by… This was a very useful book for me and if you are reading this and can relate to my use of relationships as a destructive distraction then I would absolutely suggest a read. Through these guided help methods and by being kind to myself I have begun to develop an awareness of my behaviours; I understand they will probably stay with me forever, and sometimes it can be a real emotional mind battle but it’s just a matter of controlling them and continuing to keep in my reality.
I still live a very distracting life, I don’t sit still often and I don’t give myself enough time to reflect on things but I’m living my life in a way that is genuinely making me feel better. I’m eating healthily, looking better and feeling good about myself. I’m staying in touch and spending proper time with my amazing and supportive friends; my chosen family. I’m doing exercise; swimming and yoga. I’ve started writing poetry which I have found a very therapeutic process, a healthy and safe way to express my darker emotions and a great reflection tool. I have a job which I thoroughly enjoy, I still have to be careful not to let this consume me too much sometimes but this has been a massive source of healthy distraction for me. And I have started to do some volunteering; for ASLI and for a local riding therapy centre, both roles I find incredibly inspirational, educational and satisfying. All these things are for me, they’re what I want to do and are things that I benefit from. Learning to be selfish, to put my needs before anyone else’s, has not been easy but I understand now that I have to be number one to myself to be any use to this planet and the people in it!
If you would like to read some of Becky’s previous posts her are the links: