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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.