‘let’s talk! about mental health – #Take5 on the 5th February to discuss mental health

logoToday is Time to Talk Day, when the charity Time to Change asks us to all to spend five minutes discussing mental health issues. The aim is to raise awareness, reduce stigma and encourage people to open up about a subject which is still taboo for many.

So here on let’s talk! we thought we should do just that, and have asked our regular contributor, Suzie Grogan, to start a conversation about how mental health issues affect her, and what raising awareness means to her.

My name is Suzie and I have experienced mental illness. There I have said it.

This is actually how I began my first ever post about mental health, four years ago, on my blog over at No wriggling out of writing and the response to it was overwhelming. It led to my offering a monthly guest post slot to someone else who wanted to say something about how depression and anxiety had affected their lives, and a book – dandelions and Bad Hair Days – followed. It proved to me that there are millions of people out there who are longing to be open about their feelings and find support in others; but the possible stigma that attached to the declaration was a significant concern. What will my friends and family think? What will happen at work?

I can’t remember when I experienced my first real bout of depression. I was an anxious child, and terrified teenager. I had a loving and secure childhood, with two younger siblings but with a father poorly with Parkinson’s from his mid-40s onwards perhaps I took on some of his anxious nature. He was certainly incredibly superstitious and convinced the worst would always happen. I later discovered he had lost his first wife and child, and saw his mother fall dead in front of him. 

After I had my own children I was diagnosed with a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). All parents are anxious but I took it to extremes, convinced that if I didn’t follow certain rituals (such as making the beds properly, or laying the table with matching cutlery) some terrible accident would befall my family. I developed an eating disorder as a means of introducing some control into my life and was eventually desperate enough to approach my GP. I was lucky to be offered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the OCD became manageable, but the lingering thought that something I did, or failed to do, would bring some disaster on us all remained.

Unluckily for me this feeling seemed to be confirmed when, only in my early 40s, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. All my fears having come true, and despite coming through all the treatment successfully, I became swallowed up with anxiety about my health and I felt terrified of everything the future held for me. It is nearly nine years since my cancer diagnosis but the anxiety remains, and occasionally it is unbearable. My life is consumed by it,and the black dog of depression snaps at my heals.

As a mother I knew I was supposed to bring up my son and daughter to be confident, caring people with a proper sense of who they were and what their place in the world might be. I was meant to give them all the opportunities I could to equip them for a future with choice and the ability to forge happy relationships with their peers. How was I supposed to do that when I had no sense of myself, no confidence that I had anything to offer anyone? I thought I was bound to be abandoned if I was not the ‘best’ mother, wife, friend, person I knew and my desperation to please, to make everyone happy, inevitably failed in the hurly burly of life with little ones, simply reinforcing my view of myself as a bad parent. But despite all this pain, all the unhappiness I have put myself and my family through, my children have turned out to be confident, and caring and I am incredibly proud of them. And after four years of counselling I can be proud of myself – for being a ‘good enough’ parent. And person.

Book Cover resize (2)Dandelions and Bad Hair Days raises money for the mental health charity SANE, and it is full of poetry and prose by more than twenty people who were keen to keep the conversation going. And that is what we must all do – on the 5th February and beyond.

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Shell Shocked Britain – The First World War & inter-generational trauma

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegAs we approach the first Remembrance or Armistice Day commemorations of the First World War centenary  it is appropriate to be mindful of what exactly we are marking on Sunday, and on the 11th of November 2014. Yes, we are offering up our thanks to those who gave their lives in the Great War and subsequent conflicts, but we must also remember those who survived, lived, and are living with the aftermath of the war.

In Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, Suzie Grogan looks at the impact of the First World War on the men, women and children who survived it. How did those four years of conflict affect the way we view the mental health of those traumatised by their experience of war, whether directly or indirectly?

Dr Peter Heinl, in Splintered Innocence and others have long studied how ‘neuroses’ can be transmitted from parent to child, replicating traits down the generations.  It has not been easy, as data is limited and follow-on studies of those diagnosed with shell shock or what we would now refer to as ‘combat stress’  is very limited, or non-existent.  Work with Holocaust survivors, however, has offered greater consistency in the results of studies into the intergenerational effects of parents’ traumas. Published work has suggested greater vulnerabilities to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in second and third generation survivors. Responses to a traumatic event – whether in conflict situations or a personal trauma such as bereavement or serious illness can be more marked in the children of traumatised parents.

Arthur Addison, shell shocked soldier

Arthur Addison, shell shocked soldier

Suzie Grogan was inspired to write this book when she discovered that her shell shocked great-uncle Alfred Hardiman had killed his ex-girlfriend and himself in 1922. His act sent shock waves through his community and through the generations of his own family, but it was not an isolated case. She discovered that her grandfather had also suffered from shell shock, along with tens of thousands of other men who fought in the First World War. Identifying other members of her family who had subsequently experienced mental health issues, and acknowledging her own periods of depression and acute anxiety,  Grogan was keen to examine how the events of 1914-18 continue to resonate with us 100 years on and in doing so she uncovered new material to chart the many tragedies with their roots in the conflict.

Shell Shocked Britain looks at:

  • the direct effects of shell shock on the troops and their families,
  • the different medical approaches to ‘cure’ shell shock, including electric shock treatment, hypnotism and the talking therapies, as well as ‘miracle’ cures.
  • The impact of the1922 Committee Report on Shell Shock that was supposed to change the way men were treated in future conflicts.
  • the devastating air raids that brought the war, literally, into the domestic lives of the Home Front, killing civilians as they stood in the streets and wrecking the Upper North St school in Poplar, East London, killing 18 children.
  • The lingering after –effects of the Spanish influenza virus and the horrors of an outbreak that killed 200,000 in Britain alone as war continued to rage.
  • why thousands turned to séances and spiritualist church and how the rise of the Eugenics Society had direct links to the conflict, with leading thinkers supporting unthinkable responses.
  • how tragedies such as that perpetrated by Alfred Hardiman and suicides in general increased even into the 1930s.
  • the legacy of shell shock and lessons for future conflicts – 1914 to 2014

In the book Suzie Grogan asks tough questions of her 21st Century audience. We are told not to attribute modern views on historical events, but, she maintains, these are our close kin – parents, grandparents and great grandparents. For hundreds of thousands of people the trauma of the Great War never left them, and in the modern army highly trained men and women still break down, coming back to a civilian life for which they are ill-prepared.

To ensure children are protected from the higher levels of family breakdown, substance misuse, domestic violence and homelessness  that affect troops now as they did 100 years ago, it is important, as this book highlights, to use the next four years of commemorative events to remember those who continue to struggle with the fallout of war, and support them.

Suzie Grogan is talking at the Taunton Literary Festival on 11th November 2014 and for Taunton Association for Psychotherapy on the 14th November . See suziegrogan.co.uk for more details