To the outside world Judy Wilson looks like she has it all. She’s had a successful career in the NHS spanning 36 years. Including being Chief Executive of two London mental health trusts and Clinical Director for North East-based charity Mental Health Matters (MHM). Judy has also suffered from depression since her early 20s. This is her account of what it’s like to live with a mental illness.
One in four people will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lives. And currently 450 million people suffer from mental health conditions, making mental health problems one of the leading causes of ill-health worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation.
Talking about her own experiences of mental ill health, Judy, 61, from Ashbrooke, Sunderland, says:
“The more good things going on in your life, the worse you feel; you have negative thoughts that influence your emotions. You feel anxious and there are times when you don’t want to get out of bed. You can feel on your own in a room full of people. “
Judy says she’s never felt suicidal, but understands why people do. Mental health is equivalent to physical health, yet “we use some terrible words to describe a person suffering from mental illness such as ‘nutter’ and ‘crackpot'”.
Mental health stigma
Negative descriptors marginalise those struggling with mental health conditions and add to the stigma that many mental health sufferers face. A study published in the BMC Health Services Research Journal in 2007 asked more than 400 teenagers to describe people living with mental illnesses. Of the 250 words provided, almost half of those listed were described as ‘popular derogatory terms’. This reinforces the researchers claims that the stigma surrounding mental illness creates a barrier preventing those suffering from seeking the help they need.
Judy admits it took her a long time to let others know she suffered from depression because she was concerned about the stigma. Recalling an event from previous years, she says “I had been to an event with the Health Secretary and colleagues who were service users. I told my boss in the NHS that I suffered from depression. We were standing on a train platform at the time and he almost stepped off.
“He was so shocked as he saw me as strong and confident; he just didn’t expect somebody like me to have depression.” On the positive side, Judy says: “I have always felt supported after letting people know of my experience.”
(Judy Wilson (pictured) in The original interview as featured in The Journal in 2015)
Judy was in her 40s before she felt ready to tick the mental health box on job applications. Why then? She says: “I wanted to encourage other staff to come forward, but also for people who used the mental health service to realise it wasn’t an ‘us and them,’ it was a we.”
Her career as a mental health nurse inspired Judy to talk about living with depression and she hopes to encourage those suffering in silence to ask for help. “I began my first job as a staff nurse on the behavioural therapy unit at Bethlem Royal Hospital in London in 1979,” she recalls. Bethlem is Europe’s first and oldest mental illness institution and featured on Channel 4 documentary Bedlam – which challenged the taboos and stigma attached to mental health illnesses.
This week, Bethlem featured in Louis Theroux’s latest documentary, Mothers on the Edge. Theroux investigates mental disorders faced by women pre and post pregnancy and shows how indiscriminate mental illness is.
Talking: a step in the right direction
“Nobody would choose to feel the way depression makes you feel,” adds Judy. “Mental health problems kill people: through suicide, through neglect; some people are so depressed they can’t take care of themselves.” That said, there are many ways people can find the help they need. “Compared to when I started in 1976 there is so much more that can be done about it,” she says.
What advice would Judy give to people experiencing mental health symptoms? “Don’t wait. There are a number of things you can do. Go to your GP. You can also self-refer at your local psychological therapy service, or look at the Mind website for local self-help groups – and talk to people you know.”
“I have a special chair to support my back. It seems so easy to get help for physical illness. I’d like to see the same sort of support for people who suffer with mental health problems.”
Watch Louis Theroux’s latest documentary Mothers on the Edge now on BBC iPlayer.