Hi team, how are you all today? This post has been percolating for a little while so I’m going to try and hammer it out now before I have to leave for yoga. Apologies if it’s a bit garbled. I’m also feeding my Netflix by watching Nikita at the time as well as drinking a cup of tea and eating a piece of chocolate chip shortbread. Not exactly a recipe for coherence or productivity, but this is the way I do things!
Who am I? So I’ve been having a bit of an identity crisis recently. For the first time in 8 years, I’m not a student. I’m not in the process of applying to be a student. I’m not writing up. I am not connected to academia in any way (apart from the £4.95 library fine that I must remember to sort out). This is pretty much the first time in my adult life that I have not been at some point along the academia production line and it’s pretty scary. I have often joked that all I am good at is carrying books and wearing slightly bizarre studenty clothes. I kind of thought I’d be a student forever. Being a student was part of my identity. It was also my 27th birthday last week. That’s actually pretty old, a proper grown up age. I just thought that by the time I get to 27, I’d have a bit more of a clue what I’m doing, you know?
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my new job. I’m enjoying becoming a young professional, playing at dressing up in smart casual and doing a job that I really believe in, but not being a student has made me think about my self identity. Of course, being a student wasn’t the only thing that defined me. There are loads of other things which contribute to my self identity. I love being a blogger, a yogi, a charity worker, a friend, a wife, but thinking about my self identity has really made me wonder about my mental health and how much of my self identity is made up by having a mental health problem.
I’ve been feeling pretty good recently. Mental health-wise, I’ve been on a pretty even keel for a while now.I don’t cry any more than is about usual for me (about once a week, or when I see a sad advert or a happy dog with 3 legs), I’m not having counselling, I’m not taking anti-depressants (I don’t generally take them anyway, they make me really sick) and I’m not having treatment for my mental health in any way. So should I still class myself as someone with a mental illness? I’ve built a blog and an online identity on the basis of experiencing mental health issues. Should I stop now that I’m feeling better? Well from years of previous experience, I know it would be foolhardy to class myself as fixed, cured, completely better. Depression comes and goes, sometimes without any obvious triggers. Of course, it would be wonderful if I was never to experience an episode of mental illness ever again, but it’s unlikely. I also don’t think that the binary of mentally healthy and mentally ill is particularly helpful. I think that mental wellbeing is better conceptualised as a spectrum, with each person at different points along it at different points in their lives. I think this is a far less stigmatizing image as it emphasises that we all have mental health, which can be relatively better or worse at different times. At the moment, my mental health is relatively better than it has been. That’s all I can really say about it.
How helpful is it to self-identify as experiencing mental health problems? This is something that has cropped up in a couple of things that I have been reading recently, the idea that it is unhelpful for us to identify as “depressed people” or “anxious people” as it can become part of who we think we are and can hinder recovery. I can kind of see what it’s getting at. A few years ago, at one of my “further towards the sad end of the mental wellbeing spectrum” periods, I asked my psychologist about whether he thought it as possible to just have a depressive personality. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that no, he didn’t believe that some people just had depressive personalities, that depression was an illness and that, with appropriate help, everyone had the potential to recover. This was pretty helpful to me for my own recovery as it helped me to believe that I could recover and that I wouldn’t always feel that way. So to a certain extent, I can see why internalising an identity of being depressed or mentally ill might be unhelpful. I took to twitter to ask some of you blog pals and a number of you commented that identifying as having experience of mental illness left you open to stigma, but also actively challenged stigma. I guess there’s a point to be made about the number of us who come to twitter or blogging specifically as an outlet to talk about our mental health as we may not feel comfortable doing so else where and therefore our mental health is more likely to feature in our online identities.
Personally, I would never have started blogging, tweeting or got my new job if depression hadn’t made up part of my self identity. The massive support I have gained from the online mental health community has helped me to feel like it is acceptable to talk about my mental health and aided my recovery no end. So now that I’m feeling better, do I still have anything to say about mental health? Well…I think I do. I think that my experiences of mental health and stigma put me in a great place to support other people in talking about their mental health. I’ve been where they’ve been and I know how scary it is. Feeling better also means that I have more energy to put into table-thumping about stigma. So don’t worry, you’ll be hearing from me for a long time yet! Rather than identifying as a person who has a depression, I am building “experience of a mental health condition” into my identity and I think it’s going to be pretty useful!
Well team, better get on with my day. As always, if you want to comment or guest post on how you construct your self-identity with a mental health issue or whether your online and real life identities are different, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org! Big love!