A psychotherapist’s perspective, by Elena Fabbri, MA MBACP, owner of Red Oak Practice, Portishead  

The topic of mental health has been part of my life since a young age, dating back to the early 80's.

I grew up in the South East of England and was exposed to mental illness that plagued my mother for many years and subsequently, spent years fighting my own relentless battle. 

Back then, the topic of mental illness was something hidden away like a secret monster waiting in the closet to jump out and scare the living daylights out of those it chose to devour.

Now, in 2022, after an ongoing global pandemic, mental health awareness has become a prominent part of our lives.  The dramatic shift has been a by-product of societies that have buckled under seemingly insurmountable stress; from the individual, to the Government and in a more expansive way, the world we inhabit. I am of course speaking of the dramatic shifts climatically. 

As winter arrived and the overpowering endurance of Covid-19 became undeniable, havoc for the NHS and our overall mental well being resulted, I found myself reflecting upon this. 

Despite the growing awareness around mental health, there still exists a heavy stigma on anyone labelled mentally ill or struggling to cope with mental health challenges. My personal experience of mental health challenges, being a fellow mum at school drop-off and pick-up and experience working psychotherapeutically with clients, I see and feel the hidden shame we experience during times when we are struggling to cope. 

The heaviness that clamps down on us during trying times can act like a repellent around social interactions, forcing us to be ‘British’ and soldier on, telling those around us that we are fine, while fighting with all our might to prevent the tears in our eyes from being witnessed. We share phrases like, ‘same old’, or ‘just the usual stuff’, while, if truth be told, we just want our lives to feel less overwhelming. 

On the flip side, behaviours like overindulging with alcohol, fighting the invisible beast whilst behind the wheel, intolerable frustration waiting in a seemingly stationary queue at the supermarket as our blood pressure mounts with every passing second; implosion almost beckoning at every turn.  The stresses and strains of our daily lives are shared by so many; almost becoming a norm of everyday living. We feel as though we all have so much stuff going on that we neglect to read the tell-tale signs, that, in fact, our mental health is suffering greatly, and we need help. 

There is an expectation that ‘life is a struggle’, which to a degree I agree with.  We live in a rather chaotic, media-dictated society, where there are so many valid causes to fight for, yet we rarely fight for ourselves.

Here again, I passionately believe that one of the main factors that get in our way is the fear of being stigmatised, either by others, or by ourselves. 

There are no lack of articles that aim to normalise mental health struggles, yet despite the wide array available, they seem to fall on deaf ears, or maybe ears that aren’t yet ready to be vulnerable. Are we really able to absorb the message, ‘it’s okay not to be okay’? 

Where I studied for my masters in counselling psychology, having a therapist was more or less a given.  In California, USA, many places are saturated with therapists and school counsellors are a permanent fixture in many schools, but despite all this awareness and availability, my experience was still one of feeling stigmatised and feeling a need to hide my various challenges for fear of being judged negatively. 

I was suffocated by my own learned internal shame and stigma, and as a result lost many opportunities to connect with potential friends, create a career for myself earlier on in my life and experience the world as a friendly place, instead of fearing it.  I would painstakingly build up my armour before I left my house so that I could appear less flawed than I actually was and would hide myself because of internalised shame. 

What is different for me now? 

For me, the pandemic was a Godsend.  I know I may be one of the rare few who actually thrived during the various lockdowns we endured, however it acted as a reset for my experience of the world and myself. 

I discovered a new way of being with myself and my family and life became very basic, we needed to survive the virus; it was that simple.  Our family was, and is, very fortunate in many ways and was lucky enough to not face the devastating impacts the virus had on so many people and families. 

My personal reset came from writing.  My awareness of just how many people were suffering psychologically from the pandemic fuelled my desire to advocate for a less stigmatising society and re-engaged me in my chosen career in psychotherapy.  I wanted to help.  I wanted to utilise what I had learned during my many years of struggle to offer a genuine belief in hope.  I had finally accepted and un-stigmatised myself and I want to share this. 

The trailblazers who have thrown caution to the wind and spoken their truth; admitting their mental illness and/or challenges have helped. Memoirs, of which I have read a fair few, also positively contribute towards an openness and acceptance of the complexity that is hidden in our brain, that leave us feeling powerless to something we cannot see; something others cannot see… that is the problem.  We rarely stigmatise someone with a broken leg or someone who has diabetes. 

More recently I have witnessed an openness and sensitivity around mental health in those around me and in the school my children attend, something that couldn’t be welcomed more readily. There are websites dedicated to the cause, personal blogs, charities dedicated to those who struggle psychologically, yet mental health stigma is still very much alive and the need to normalise it is crucial. 

There is a difference between mental health challenges and diagnosable mental illness, yet the pain these challenges cause is undisputed and very real. 

Self-medicating with herbal remedies and pharmaceuticals, meditation and exercise can all be hugely effective in helping us with our mental health, but are these fixes just masking our problems, so we can continue to function appropriately in our daily lives and if this is the case, is this, okay? 

Seeking psychotherapy/counselling in the UK is becoming more acceptable, thank goodness, but when do I or other mental health professionals step in and attempt to collaboratively untangle the cause of the distress that is being experienced? 

Here is where stigma, cunningly so, derails the possibility of wellness. If we feel at risk of being stigmatised, due to seeking out professional help for our mental health, things could go unresolved and cause deeper distress, creating far-reaching ripples including dysfunction in the family system, trouble in school, relationship issues, disruption with work… the list is too long. 

The sense of community that has blossomed as a result of the pandemic has been touching to witness and we need to capitalise on it. 

My hope is we can eradicate the stigma of mental ill health, embrace our unique humanity and grow from our struggles, which will in turn, allow us to connect with others more deeply and authentically.

I hold this hope for us all. 

For more information, contact Red Oak Practice, in Portishead, by calling 0117 2870078, emailing elenafabbri@redoakpractice.com, or visiting redoakpractice.com