On my mind11:27, 10th April 2019
CM editor Lucy Thraves introduces the Harmony in Mind campaign with her own revelations about living with anxiety, and suggests how we can change the conversation around mental health
Since starting work in the classical music industry a year ago, I have been struck by optimism and dynamism of the people I’ve met, but also, underneath it all, a veiled unhappiness that emerges through the odd conversation, the occasional tweet. This industry presents a unique set of challenges – high levels of job insecurity, widespread funding crises, sustained searching for an identity in modern society – which conspire to create unstable working environments for many. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that research conducted into the classical music world’s wellbeing points to extensive anxiety, depression, high levels of stress, and sadness.
My own experience with anxiety, which began when I was hit by car one summer afternoon whilst I was at university, has developed in me a sensitivity to the complexities of psychological suffering and a belief that so much could be alleviated if we change the kinds of conversations we have and the language we use; if we foster honesty and acceptance in the ways we listen to and tell others the facts of our mental health.
Because, in the weeks that followed the crash, I had absolutely no idea that the moment of impact would reverberate through the years that followed, and that it would still affect me today. I waited impatiently for the broken bones to heal, eager to get back to normal life. By the end of summer, I had, ostensibly at least, made a full recovery. I celebrated having my cast taken off with a banana boat ride off the coast of Spain.
Time passed; I returned to university. A couple of weeks into the new term, though, I became faintly aware of a feeling of homesickness – something I’d never experienced before. Then I had a string of sleepless nights, and my skin began to tingle, everywhere, constantly. I became convinced of an undiagnosed physical illness and made numerous doctor’s appointments. Time and again the GP reassured there was nothing wrong with me, but as my mysterious symptoms persisted, I didn’t believe him.
The insomnia worsened to the point where I struggled to sleep for more than two or three hours a night. Exhaustion was causing me to hallucinate, but despite this I threw myself into my work, desperate for the distraction and to retain some sense of normality in spite of my internal chaos. My tutors never suspected anything was amiss; my essays were all of the usual standard. On paper, I was doing just fine.
But a year of living like this inevitably took its toll. I developed an eating disorder – an attempt to regain a feeling of control, I now understand – and early-stage osteoporosis that goes along with prolonged malnourishment. Eventually I sought help from the university counselling service: it was through this that we made the connection between my unravelling mental state and the accident, but by this time almost two years had passed and I had lost the ability to fall asleep without ever-increasing doses of Valium. My counsellor explained that my baseline physiological state had become one of constant hyperawareness – useful when in acute danger (such as when getting out of the way of an oncoming vehicle), but less so when you’re watching TV on a Sunday evening. A diagnosis of severe anxiety followed, along with specific therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, and a prescription for antidepressants. Both of these helped enormously, and, now, three years later, I’ve got to a place where I can understand and manage my mental health.
There are still difficult days, though. I think there always will be, because I lived in a state of acute crisis for so long, without getting help. This might have been avoided if, in the weeks following the accident, I had had access to the right kind of support. Then I might have nipped it all in the bud before it took hold; it was trying to live with this trauma, and developing destructive coping mechanisms for dealing with it, that did the most damage. If I had recognised the early signs that something was amiss then recovery might have been a more straightforward process.
It’s time there was a shared responsibility for one another’s wellbeing
I came into contact with many people who could have been alert to these things, studying at university, under pastoral care of tutors and university staff. But the institution promoted a toxic culture that considered sleeplessness and high stress normal, even admirable; if you weren’t up half the night then you weren’t working hard enough. Moreover, it wasn’t until my diagnosis that I understood what I was going through; until that point the thought that I was mentally unwell never even occurred to me. When people asked, concerned, how I was, I half-joked that I’d ‘broken’; I didn’t really know what else to say. Because mental illness is so readily brushed aside or glossed over, we haven’t developed the vocabulary or infrastructure to support it in our everyday conversations. I’ve seen a number of disclosures of unhappiness and stress met with an awkward, embarrassed dismissal.
My case is not an unusual one. According to the Mental Health Foundation, it is estimated that 1 in 6 people in the past week have experienced a common mental health problem. Think about that in terms of the people in your office. How many of them are going through something you know nothing about? It is imperative that the stigma is abolished, and that we are sensitive to the complexities of each other’s minds as we go about our daily lives. Even if you aren’t suffering from mental illness yourself, the chances are you know someone who is, or will.
We must foster an environment where people feel safe, supported, and accepted – and I believe this begins with the conversations we have with each other. Real connections we make with one another are increasingly challenged by the rise of social media, the cult of the individual and the personal brand, and aside from anything else it’s adding fuel to the fires of anxiety and unhappiness. It’s time there was an antidote to that, a return to openness and a shared responsibility for one another’s wellbeing. If this article provokes even just one conversation that upholds these values, then I’ll have done my job.
For more information visit www.harmonyinmind.co.uk