Hidden Mental Health – A Personal Story
The topic of mental health awareness is in the spotlight this week as it was World Mental Health Day yesterday so I thought I would add a personal perspective. I must stress that these are my thoughts and are not meant as a guide. Simply my thoughts!
It started when I was 17 and joined a very alpha male dominated culture. It was 1989 and I had joined the Parachute Regiment – this journey started at the Junior Para Company in Pirbright before heading to Depot Para in Aldershot. I arrived at Brookwood station along with other fresh-faced and anxious young men. One of the first people I met was a guy called John. He was from Glasgow and being a naïve Devon boy I had never heard the accent in real life. I probably understood about 10% of what John said initially but was drawn to him because I was given the advice before hand to make friends quickly with the biggest person you can find (I was a scrawny little thing). Although John was the same age as me he was 6ft 2" and built like the proverbial out house – he turned up with two carrier bags containing his stuff. It turned out that he was from a very poor background in Glasgow and had been in care for most of his childhood. He looked hard as nails so I stuck with him.
We were greeted at the station by some very nice men with big moustaches, lots of tattoos and red berets on. Aside from the shouting they seemed pleasant enough!
The friendship between John and I grew over the coming months as we undertook some very rigorous training and had to also endure a lot of the harsh realities of joining a very ‘man’s man’ type of environment. We looked out for each other and I even learnt to understand his accent. I looked up to John (I had to – he was 6ft 2") and tried to emulate how he was around others just to survive the tough environment. They continually hounded John and I because he was big and I was his friend – it seemed that the thing to do was to break everyone, even the big hard lads.
Late on in our training one early morning around 4am I woke from a restless sleep and headed into the communal toilets and shower area and what greeted me was something that will be with me for ever more. John, my big but friendly Glaswegian giant of a friend was hanging from a door frame by a rope made out of the sheet from his bed. He was dead.
I will never fully know the truth as to why he did what he did. Maybe his upbringing, maybe the continual bullying that happened during the 9 months of training or maybe a combination of many things but what I do know is that I never saw any signs of it coming. It’s taken me many years to come to terms with that. This has been difficult for me to write – I never talk about it. Maybe I should? I just hope that it helps someone.
Not every mental health issue is obvious. Sometimes it can be the people we least expect.
Below are some of my ideas of what to look out for in your friends, colleagues and other human beings. They are not in any particular order, just as they came into my mind. I am not an expert – just my opinions. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.
Potential signs to look out for
1. Openly threaten to hurt or kill themselves. This may seem obvious but quite often when people say these sorts of things they get laughed off – they don’t really mean it.
2. Stockpiling tablets.
3. Talk or write about death, dying or suicide. Scribble doodles that depict death or dying.
4. Giving away treasured possessions and put their affairs in order.
5. Unable / unwilling to talk about the future. Talk and act in a way that suggests their life has no sense of purpose.
6. Sudden optimism during a severe bout of depression. A sudden lift in mood after a period of depression could indicate they have made the decision to attempt suicide.
7. Acting overly ‘manly’. Most men (and I can only really give a male perspective) struggle with what being a ‘real man’ actually means.
8. Complain of feelings of hopelessness, saying things such as, “What’s the point of even trying? I know things are never going to get better”
9. Have episodes of sudden rage and anger.
11. Act recklessly and engage in risky activities with an apparent lack of concern about the consequences (drink driving is an example).
12. Talk about feeling trapped, such as saying they cannot see any way out of their current situation.
13. Start to abuse drugs or alcohol, or use more than they usually do.
14. Become overly happy.
15. Become increasingly withdrawn from friends, family and society in general.
16. Appear anxious and agitated more than they normally would. Or conversely, become much quieter or subdued than normal.
17. Are unable to sleep or sleep all the time.
18. Vast change in diet. Under or over eating.
19. Lose interest in their appearance, not washing regularly.
20. Any behaviour that is vastly different to their normal way of being.
Sometimes there are no obvious signs – talk to your friends and colleagues regularly and openly about how you are feeling. We are all human beings.