You Are Not Alone — A few thoughts for International Mental Health Day / by Nasri Atallah

I'm a fan of any initiative to reduce the stigma around talking about and seeking help for mental health issues. So I thought I’d share some stats, and some personal experience.

According to a survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 65% of people say that they have experienced a mental health problem. More than 40% say they have experienced depression and over 25% say they have experienced panic attacks.

These are all UK figures, I imagine they vary from country to country, but the basic thing to keep in mind is that if you’re feeling anxious or depressed — or dealing with other forms of mental health issues — you are most definitely not alone. You’re probably not the only one with these issues in the room you're sitting in right now.

I’ve been in little cycles of psychoanalytic therapy in the past (which didn’t really do it for me, and no two cases are the same, so it might work for you. Doing research on this helps a lot), but most recently I went through a cycle of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

What triggered the need to go into therapy earlier this year? Well I was having regular and sustained panic attacks on the Tube and in crowded places, something that has never happened to me before. Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience, and it can even be useful. But when anxiety starts to dictate behaviour, thinking and decisions then it’s time to look for help. So when I started retreating into my home and avoiding places I normally love, I knew it was time to do something.

Anxiety is a combination of thoughts, feelings, physical symptoms and behaviours. So it’s really something you want to deal with as soon as you can. And don’t think your case is silly. I thought mine was silly. Most of my anxiety, believe it or not, was pretty much directly related to Brexit and Trump. Looking back at my emails, I realize I reached out to my local mental health service in November, right after the election. I suddenly became overwhelmingly concerned with my own well-being, that of my family, that of the world at large. I became convinced everyone around me in the world was a raging racist who wanted me dead. My logical mind knew that was not the case, but it couldn’t do anything about the ball holding my chest hostage, the ringing in my ears or the tremor in my hands. I felt stupid walking into a doctor's office and telling them I was scared of Donald Trump and his supporters while I lived in a leafy bit of Camden.

But he walked me through it, and told me to never second-guess my anxiety. Every single mental health issue is important, because it is important to YOU. Never ever think what you’re feeling is silly or undeserving of attention.

I’m lucky enough to live in the UK, so I got great support on the NHS, and elected to go to a group therapy session once a week for six weeks rather than have one-on-ones with a doctor. Something about the group attracted me, the fact that there would be a heightened level of empathy and a shared vulnerability. And CBT is a great technique. Within no time I had tools to manage my anxiety. And that’s an important thing to keep in mind. It never goes away, it is something you manage.

At the beginning of the 6 weeks we were asked to write our biggest fear about the therapy on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope and hand it to our counsellors. They’d give it back to us six weeks later. When I got my piece of paper back, I opened the envelope having forgotten what I'd written down.

I looked down at the Post-It it said: “I hope getting better doesn’t change who I am”.

It felt like it had been written by someone else. “What a silly thing to be scared about” I thought to myself. But I smiled about it, happy about how far I’d come in such a short time.

I'm happy to chat with anyone going through feelings of anxiety and happy to share some of the documents I have from the CBT sessions if someone is curious (but please see a therapist, the documents are only helpful as an indication of what you could get out of seeking help).

If you live somewhere that has great healthcare, by all means make the most of it. If you live somewhere like Lebanon or the US where healthcare is considered a luxury, please seek out help nonetheless. I know it’s expensive, but the tools it gives you will change your life. Look into the different therapies beforehand so you choose the right path for you.

And remember, we are quite literally all in this together.

Cover Image by Brendan George Ko