Every now and again, a letter comes in out of the blue that manages both to sadden, but also to make the heart soar a little. Below is one such letter, from a 19-year-old student, Emily Oldfield.
It is saddening because it is a reminder of the reality of mental health issues, and of the difficulty people have of accessing support services in the face of government cuts and lack of prioritising. The cuts are hitting young people’s services in particular. But it is heart-lifting because her letter is beautifully written and combines both an understanding of the issue, and a determination to do something about it, not just for herself, but for others. And key to that understanding is the importance of openness, just talking about it.
Emily is from Burnley, and lives round the corner from the football ground, Turf Moor. That is one point of connection and, as you will see, she wants me to ask Burnley FC to play its role in breaking down stigma, which I will. The other is my position as an ambassador for Time to Change, and since receiving her letter, I have put Emily in touch with the head of the campaign so that her passion for writing, and for making change happen, can be put to more good use as a Time to Change ‘champion’. Time to Change has also put her in touch with campaigns in universities in Scotland, where she studies English literature and modern history – though she has taken a year out to try to deal with her issues – and with the Scottish anti-stigma campaign, See Me.
It can be a big thing to come out and admit to mental health problems but Emily, with her parents’ backing, is determined to do so, which is why I am posting her letter here. She is happy for me to give out her contact details, but for now I think if people want to contact her, local media for example, they should do so by emailing email@example.com and I will make sure they are passed on.
Here is her letter.
Dear Mr Campbell,
I am writing to you as someone who does not want to feel afraid. And yet, as you may well know yourself, fear is an everyday accumulating reality for people with mental health problems. I feel afraid because I have returned from university to my home town of Burnley in desperation – facing depression and eating problems I struggle to understand myself – only to be told that I must wait at least a month for a consultation.
I appreciate that the National Health Service is facing incredible strain at the moment, and that is not necessarily what I am directly challenging. The challenge which lies as thick and forceful as my depression is the realisation that, in what appears to be the North of England especially, there is fearfully limited discussion of mental health. On buses around Burnley I see advertisements advocating the importance of checking for cancer, feel my stare stumble over the statistic that heart disease is one of the biggest killers in East Lancashire. Yet mental health itself is a potentially fatal issue. At university I felt suicidal. On arriving at home the feeling continued; I can liken the situation only to the continuum of an empty stare – people looking through me, myself looking through people. In these depths of depression, situations often feel alien. And yet this was my home town I returned to in an attempt to feel grounded, safe, and secure.
The sad reality is that in the North of England, mental health is still an under-addressed area, especially amongst young people. There may be youth groups designed to provide some kind of structure for example, often intended to tackle anti-social behaviour – yet surely a structural consideration of behaviour should involve consideration of the mind? Yet so often Clubs and societies may provide a distraction rather than tackling the problem. Indeed, many articles of life provide a distraction from the sensations slowly submerging us. Alcohol may provide a distraction. Sport may provide a distraction. I know that you yourself are an avid Burnley supporter – and I often hear the roar of the Clarets’ loyal fans from my bedroom window. At a match you may look out at a sea of animated faces, yet I often wonder what unhappiness underlies the apparent energy. According to The Calmzone, suicide is the biggest single killer of young men in England and Wales – and, to put gender aside, we may never fully know the true extent of mental illness if it continues to be treated as something of a taboo, something to be ‘kept quiet’. It certainly is quiet in Burnley, aside from the football.
Why is it that the enthusiasm I hear at the football slips to something of a silence in regards to championing a better discussion of mental health in the North West? Burnley Football Cub are now in the Premiership – and yet the awareness and openness to access Mental Health services in the community is far from ‘Premier’. Too often I have been referred to phone lines when what I desperately needed was a guiding hand. Too often I have visited the library in hope of consolation only to find leaflets detailing financial concerns but nothing in terms of dealing with the feelings I have faced. Too often (and I am sure you will agree) Burnley have lost their matches and I see people ‘drowning their sorrows’ afterwards, with myself left wondering about the true extent of sadness, fear or frustration so many people may feel in their day-to-day lives but do not know how to deal with.
I acknowledge and appreciate that your publications, especially recently ‘My Name Is…’, and your work as an ambassador for Time To Change, are doing great things in terms of raising the awareness of Mental Health. I too often face the prospect of waking in the mornings, looking in the mirror and feeling utterly disconnected, I too relay the words ‘My name is…’ and find no coherent answer. But I can only imagine the utter incoherence some must feel if they have had very little education in terms of mental health, know of no support and yet are faced with feelings (or, as can be in the case of depression, a lack of feeling) which completely overwhelm them. That is why I am writing to you.
I am a firm believer that writing, discussion and communication can provide hope. So many people have told me to believe in luck, to believe in fate, to believe in God. Why is it that we cannot believe in ourselves? It is belief in ourselves, not just as individuals, but as a community, which fosters hope. It is that kind of hope which helped project Burnley from The Championship to The Premiership – a loyal fanbase, integrity and hard-work. I see and feel the same in your writing, your openness about the mental health issues you have faced, and I very much appreciate it. I wish that more people could. Again, that is why I am writing to you. I am determined that no one should have to feel the terror and isolation I felt on returning to a place I believed to be ‘home’. As you may well know, so much happens in the mind – I imagine the possibility of advertisements, leaflets, any way of raising mental health awareness, potentially at football matches. But just as I am sure Burnley Football Club appreciates your support, I sincerely would also, in order to make what is in my mind a much more constructive reality.
I am hoping to try and contact Burnley Football Club and enquire if there is anything they would be willing to do, even just in terms of the distribution of leaflets regarding mental health, in order to generate a greater openness, so less people feel afraid. I would be willing to work to my utmost and therefore, if there is any support you can offer, words of advice, I would be incredibly grateful.
Thank you for your writing. Thank you for your time. And thank you for listening – as it is one of the greatest things one human being can do for another.
I look forward to hearing from you. At least I can say that – I can see a future, although at times it is hard. Please help me to do the same for others, if you can.
I hope this letter finds you well.
Miss Emily Oldfield
— I hope you agree that is a powerful testimony and a passionate cry for change. I have since spoken to her at length and learned that like me and many others, she finds writing an important way of making sense of difficult challenges, and there is much more of her writing – prose and poetry – on her own blog.
Ps Time to Change’s Time to Talk Day is next Thursday, February 5.
Very moving. May I relate a recent experience. In my hometown, we have recently experienced a sad sudden death of a young person (mid 20s), and I am a friend of the family. His parents are inconsolable of course, but when visiting them people have been musing on various things. One such is that this seems to be the umpteenth tragedy that has befallen our neighbourhood in the past year or so, lots of young people have died, from road accidents, brain tumours, cancer – and several suicides. All complete tragedies.
However I heard two people separately wonder aloud in this person’s home something like “How can those other young people take their own lives? THIS is a real tragedy, a lad who wanted to live but whose life has been taken away. Yet those other young people had lives but threw them away.” It is a kind of shaming of those suicide victims. I know the people meant well, trying to “big up” the recently deceased, but I thought was a touch crass given the big audience it was said in front of in a tight community, when there was a great chance someone present was a relative of one of those suicide victims.
Hence I think it was apt that Alastair used the word “coming out” in relation to depression / mental health issues. Even today people have to “come out” when they are gay, implying that it is a great shame that they must publicly “own up” to. The same is implied with mental health issues.
Both have had and are having a struggle gaining traction among a certain audience, particularly in the North as Emily says. But one thing I have noticed changing since I was a nipper, is that gay people are much more accepted even in my community, which is something I would never have foreseen. One reason is that even those anti-gay blokes eventually grow up and have children, some of whom may be gay, or have mates or brothers who have such children, and this has accelerated the process of acceptance. Might it be the only way for people with depression and mental health issues to gain such acceptance too?
Then in turn, when there is a greater cultural acceptance, perhaps people would then put more pressure on the government to improve the NHS services for those who face this issue, which as Emily says can be as sure a killer as many a more physical illness.
Beautifully written Emily. I think this applies across a lot of northern towns; a remnant of an industrial age when physical and mental ‘toughness’ were perceived to be inextricably linked: you just dealt with it; bottle open to bottle up. I worked in Burnley not so long ago. It is changing so much. I hope Alastair connects you to people who will listen, then support you to further drive that change along. I shall send your moving blog to a few people I know too. Best wishes. Kevin
Excellent correspondence, if obviously quite disturbing. Get these goons out in May!!!
I’m never sure how to respond re this problem to someone I don’t know, who doesn’t know me and might mistake my response to be know-all.
When we spoke to Oli a few weeks ago I was all hale and hearty about my own cure-alls, as much daylight as possible for mood, exercise (I walk fast but not much running ‘cos of the boobs and if I was a bloke it would be only if certain stuff was well-secured) and a lorra lorra spices especially chilli to keep the metabolism speedy – I’ve found the last to be sooooo effective (but not too much salt), a big whoaaaa with sugar (I’m lucky I don’t like it anyway but honey is really good).
Boredom is a real downer …. durrrr….. I don’t know whether this is a good recommendation but one of the best interpretations of unbalance I’ve ever read is ‘Hunger’ – not the version that a recent film was based on but an ancient little book by Knut Hamsun. Its ‘hero’ is really self-destructive, nobody would want to live like that so in a way that reveals a lot about one’s own similar mistakes …..
Shurrup now M xxx
Re my last, which probably sounds smartrrrrrrs.
What I missed out (and have in the past re other sufferers) is my own mistrust of chemicals.
What’s the point in relying on something outside yourself except for the very short term?
Drugs no – they involve too long of hit and miss ‘let’s see’ imho.
Exercise, even just fast walking, has two-fold help, the effects are quick and also distracting.
Daylight, its Vit D ditto.
Spicy food – getting the metabolism’s help re both the above.
…….. shuffles off hopefully-modestly …..
This seems like it could be good news :
The call for evidence will close on Wednesday 18th March 2015 (no note re how long it has been open – or nod towards it that I’ve heard of before).
VERY late explanation as links are so often mis-trusted ……. it’s about the provision of acute in-patient psychiatric care (albeit only for adults).