Over the past couple of months I’ve done two projects with incurably ill people. One was a wedding video for a woman who died this morning. The other was a short feature film describing living with incurable cancer, inspired by a woman who lives locally. These were really meaningful projects, but they were quite challenging from an emotional point of view. It got me thinking I ought to share some of my experiences with poor mental health either in myself or others. The aim of it is to give a few pointers for you if you are struggling, or if you are helping someone else who is. The headline from all of this is:
- If someone you know is worried about you, get help now.
- If you are worried about yourself get help now.
Firstly, if you are reading this because you are feeling shit, then the chances are you won’t have the concentration span to reach the end, so here are 3 places you can go to get some help:
- The Samaritans – give ’em a call if life is getting real bad
- IAPT – an NHS initiative to make it easier to get psychotherapy – input your post code here and have a look whats available in your area.
- Mind -these lot are amazing if you are feeling the heat
- Church – yes that’s right people, google a Church and call the Minister. They will probably help.
I’m going to tell you some war stories from my time in the Police. Not because I want you to think that I’m hard because I aren’t. I’m telling you it, because I want you to understand that anyone, even tough people like me (ha!) can get seriously down. Also, what gets you down can change dramatically over time and you need to accept that.
Trauma – It Builds Up Slowly
I was a copper for 14 years before I started making films professionally. Hence the blank LinkedIn job history.
Over the years I, like all cops, had been to tons of nasty incidents. Murders, suicides, medical accidents, horrid assaults, child abuse, gun crime, knife crime, fraud – the full gamut of things. I also faced a lot of danger; armed criminals, psychopaths, knife wielding maniacs, and most of the time got criticised by someone for some aspect of any decision I ever made.
The incidents that really affected my mental health though were the car accidents. I’m haunted by Verne and his snapped in two leg. He was not able to breathe and was hanging upside down, trapped in his smouldering car in the middle of the M25. John, who had hit a car head on with his motorcycle and broken everything. John didn’t even notice his thumb had been sliced off until a paramedic listed his injuries to the chopper crew. Two blokes with obviously broken femurs, the motorcyclist with a badly broken arm, the diabetic dude who ploughed into a lamppost to name a few.
Probably the hardest day I had, involved taking a baby out of a womans arms after deciding her new partner might seriously harm him. From there I went straight to the scene of a car crash and performed CPR on a man who was probably already dead from a heart attack.
I remember the cold sense of detachment I felt whilst I was alternately pummelling his chest and holding tubes in his throat as a trainee paramedic was trying to ventilate him with shaking hands.
His wife was looking on to all of this by the way, being comforted by strangers. I remember his death rattle and feeling like he might be breathing again, and then realising that this was the ‘agonal breathing’ I’d heard about in training. I walked away from that feeling fine at the time, but over the weekend feeling fucked up. Short tempered.
Your Not Soft If You Get Mentally Ill
I have met tons of apparently normal people who have wound up in awful situations in despair and misery. You just can’t tell by looking at someone how they are feeling. I’ve helped pick a few up from under trains too. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve tried to coax despairing people off window ledges, or sat with them on their kitchen floor with bleeding wrists.
It still surprises me that the most deadly disease a young man can have is depression.
Some people don’t feel worthy of medical help because they just don’t feel they are entitled to it. That’s a trick mental illness plays on you. It’s not obvious why everyone gets mentally ill. If it’s a clinical reason, then it can have now outward reason at all. I had a good friend who is a psychologist but has serious mental health problems which she gets regular help for and maintains a successful career with. I have another good friend who has a daily struggle to get out to work because of anxiety; he’s a builder and an excellent one too. Mental health is a great leveller and you aren’t weak or soft if you suffer symptoms.
As a younger man in my late teens I had a period of about 18 months where I was crippled with depression, for no apparent reason. I was lucky; it just went away. Most people will experience it too at some point in their lives. You can get help though, it is possible to recover.
Wakey Wakey – Mental Health Is A Thing
My own mental health wake up call came when I had what people call a flashback. I’d heard about these, but assumed I was immune. It was apparently triggered by talking about some of the experiences I have listed above. One minute I was just minding my own business doing a first aid refresher for trauma victims. I was asked to make a verbal contribution to the class and I just fucking lost it. I started to realise that I needed some time out. So I started my move away from law enforcement and into full time creativity.
But there have been other times, when as a consequence of these experiences I have been able to recognise other signs and symptoms in myself which have caused me to step back and take a few days off. In a way it was a bit of a gift.
‘Ordinary’ pressures of work can be equally as corrosive to the soul.
Do you feel like you are fizzing inside, or one minute you are on top of the world, and the next minute engulfed in sadness? Then you need to get your act together and go to find some help. Are you waking up early stressed out, heart thumping? You have an issue. If its hard to get out of bed – you’ve got a problem. Don’t stress about it, just deal with it. And keep an eye out on your muckers too. If one of them starts behaving oddly they may need a quiet word. Folks who have been in accidents and keep reliving it, might also need a chat with a professional. If it is PTSD it’s one of the most treatable illnesses you can get mentally.
Things Can Change Too..
I found too that the things that used to upset me are not now the things that get me down. I found it deeply disturbing making the wedding video for the dying lady. When you think about how much stuff I have been through you’d think pointing a camera at someone would be a piece of cake. But I’m haunted by it. I also feel very honoured. I know that what I did that day has the potential to form the basis of some important knowledge for her two little girls, one of whom is only five months old.
All jobs have elements of ‘mental risk’ associated with them and you aren’t soft or stupid if it gets to you sometimes
Deal with it before it becomes limiting:
If you yourself are feeling the heat, then the first thing to do is look at the organisations in the first paragraph. They are all able to help, not that you believe that if you are feeling the heat. Just pick up the phone.
It’s hard to get help for mental health conditions at the time when you need it. Provision is very sparse and waiting lists are very long. That’s why it’s important to get on those waiting lists as soon as you can, if you need to.
There are free counselling services available and a lot of them are through churches. If you live in the Harrogate area give ‘Wellspring’ a call. If you are supporting someone informally, keep a risk assessment in your head. Decide what you are wiling to tolerate and what you are not. Encourage your mate to go to the GP or look at one of the organisations above in paragraph 1. Watch your own health, and if you feel worried for the immediate safety of your mate then you must call 999.
During my life I’ve worked with tons of people who are mentally Ill. Paramedics, Psychologists, Police, Teachers, Doctors, the high and the humble…all sorts. Anyone can be subject to mental ill health, so don’t feel guilty…just look after yourself.