World Mental Health Day – Vada Remembers

world mental health day

Stuart Forward

Recent graduate living in Leeds. Lover of the Caribbean, obscure books, beer and things people don't give a toss about. Aspiring publisher. Wannabe Belgian. @StuForward

Since Vada‘s launch 10 months ago, one of the most rewarding and heartening experiences of steering this project as Editor-in-Chief has been the community of writers and interests we have managed to establish. Rallying around the clarion call of a “new queer perspective”, we have built a team of interested, engaged and enthusiastic writers who have shared their take on the world and all its eccentricities with us. I have personally tried to foster a working environment built around an ethos of support and encouragement, rather than the hot-house mentalities of other publications. The journey together has been experimental, with highs and lows, but the one resounding note I take from the voyage so far has been the grace of some writers in opening up about their own inner battles and struggles with mental health. Through Vada they have relayed their experiences and humbled this Editor-in-Chief through their frank message, unabashed honesty and real commitment to helping our readers, some of whom may well find themselves in similar seemingly hopeless situations. On World Mental Health Day 2013, I remember the journey so far.

Mental health amongst the LGBT community is a growingly accepted area of concern, yet one that is still treated as taboo by some quarters, preferably swept under the carpet of denial rather than addressed in polite conversation. Recent studies have indicated that the LGBT community have a significantly higher than average rate of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal behaviour in comparison with our heterosexual counterparts. Given the potential difficulties in coming out, familial tensions, relationship anxiety, gender and sexual self-discovery, or homophobic bullying, as discussed by Jake Buck in ‘Harassment and Therapy‘, this finding is perhaps not all that surprising.  Despite my fairly average background and experiences, growing up as sexually different and partially disabled raised deep questions of inadequacy, body issues, shame and thoughts of an inevitable loneliness, traces of which have never left me in truth.

When I came out to my mum it took me back that her instinctive reaction was to cry. She kept repeating the necessity of avoiding HIV, and then, more resoundingly, cried some more as she thought I was dooming myself to the intense loneliness and isolation of the gay lifestyle. At that time the only resource I had available to me in these moments of struggle was the support provided by the forums of GYUK, Gay Youth UK, an online community that I am indebted to. Nowadays, with a greater emphasis on mental health as both a national and personal agenda, and a greater awareness of the intense inner conflict that often accompanies the decision to come out, combined with the support available through such organisations as PACE Health and The Samaritans, the journey would perhaps be a little less dark, a little less alone.

Through editing Vada over the past 10 months I have come into contact with a whole spectrum of individuals and back-stories, offering differing perspectives, often centred around their journey towards self-acceptance. It was on reading Jonathan Pizarro’s ‘Hello Neverland: Hermoso’ instalments Part I & Part II, and his frank discussion of his previous body and weight issues, that I was struck by the real brutality and unseen power such thoughts can exert over the individual’s mental health and such destructive feelings of inadequacy at such a young age. As a reader, I found Jonathan’s lucid and quasi-poetic recourse to this earlier time heartening. Tinged with sadness, it truly marked such issues as a central part of his growing up, yet firmly marked them in the past, a dark pit-stop which was overcome, a victory that can now be looked back on in hindsight as a source of inner strength.

It was with Jamie Bernthal’s powerful auto-biographical piece on ‘Three Lies About Eating Disorders‘ that the importance of acknowledging and not stigmatizing mental health concerns really hit home. Jamie wrote about three particular myths around eating disorders that have affected his experience of body dysmorphia. In opening up about the body issues he had experienced and witnessed, Jamie showed that the assumptions and oversights many make, through either ignorance or a lack of sensitivity, have real world implications and are utterly unacceptable. The piece also provoked a bout of contemplation for Vada as a whole, as it noted the negative body attitudes that one of our fitness promotions had encouraged. This issue was equally raised by John Brooks, and made the project as a whole realise the power that sloppy buzz-words and marketing oversights can have to isolate and exasperate mental health concerns. It was never Vada‘s intention to encourage a ‘body beautiful’ ideal, and I can only apologise for the upset that this caused at the time. It is a lesson learnt and one that will inform our future.

The experience of mental health concerns offered by the writers at Vada have provided a harrowing insight into personal stories and wider trends that need to be addressed. As Matt Hosgood wrote, ‘Let’s Talk About It‘. It is easy to beat yourself up and diminish the suffering that you experience, invalidating the need for help. You compare yourself to others, attaching blame to yourself, asking how your middle class self-doubt and pain can matter in a world where people are being killed, and you just generally muddle on, wishing things better, yet you still can’t sleep and still having the pangs at your desk where you just want to cry. This is not healthy, and not the path to recovery. We need to talk about it.

Roy Ward did talk about it. He raised his depression with his boss, and found himself without a job a few hours later. In ‘@BadlyDrawnRoy and the Black Dog‘ Roy revisits this struggle of balancing his mental health concerns and work commitments, tracking his dismissal and the subsequent legal case with his employer. Roy’s story shows both the negativity and stigma that still surround mental health, through his employer’s unacceptable and discriminatory actions. Yet the growing support and awareness depression and mental health now receives, as shown through the public reception of his case, demonstrates a long overdue legitimacy is being attached to such health issues. I hope that Roy’s frankness in bringing this to a public readership offers hope to the many trapped in a similar situation, unable to balance the pressurised, spiralling demands of the workplace with the inner struggle of depression and the lack of support of colleagues. I am honoured that Roy’s tale of recovery has been shared through Vada.

Roy was unable to receive the support he required from his manager, yet it as an essential step in acknowledging the issue and setting yourself up on the road to recovery. Being open about mental health is a cathartic process, one that I have recently taken. Triggered by the particularly corrosive breakdown of a long-term relationship earlier this year, and a number of months dealing with the fallout whilst living together, I have no shame, on today of all days, in saying that it took its toll on my mental health and fostered relapses. You go through stages of mourning: grief, anger, denial and then ultimately end up with the struggle of keeping the darkness at bay. It was only through opening up to my managers at work recently that I felt progressive steps had been taken, and that it was no longer just my pain. I hid behind my own self constructed barriers for a while and wrote irreverent coping articles about ‘The Little Book of Calm‘. It was not the way to deal with it, and can only be looked back on as an opportunity missed to truly address the issue through speaking to my GP and those around me and asking for help. As Callum Scott’s account of tackling depression shows in ‘Mental Illness and Medication‘, addressing the illness is essential.

Over the past 10 months I have tried to foster a supportive atmosphere, one which promotes acceptance and encourages catharsis in terms of mental health, should our writers wish to discuss this. Sean Weaver recently took this step and shared his experience of domestic violence and its impact on his mental health in ‘The Violence of Masculinity’. A brave look at an intensely personal and intimate subject, one which is often relegated from public discussion, Sean’s piece brought the issue into the open. Where others would shy away, the process of putting this struggle in published form sparked not only a debate around domestic violence and mental health, but provided a cathartic moment of relief. It is a discussion that must be had, and one that has fed into his later work in ‘To the One Who have Passed‘ in which Sean shares his own battle with self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

These issues are pressing and pertinent, affecting many of us and our loved ones, whether directly or indirectly. On World Mental Health Day I would encourage you to reflect. If you feel you are struggling, open up. If you feel you have to suffer alone, you really do not. Talk to somebody, whether that be a friend, GP, counsellor or support helpline. For me, and for Vada as a whole, World Mental Health Day 2013 should be coloured by the realisation that we are in 2013, that the stigma around mental health has no place here, and you do not have to suffer in silence.

I am honoured by the choice many of our writers have made to share their experience through Vada and to acknowledge the difficulty publicly. Whether you take their olive branch, or want to offer one, make today the day that you approach mental health, whether your own or that of those around you, in a fresh light.

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