Recently, my husband turned to me and said, “it seems that most women have terrible self-confidence. How do we avoid our daughter feeling like that?” My daughter is about to turn two, and I regularly worry about the future of her mental health. It is estimated that a quarter of the entire British population will suffer from mental health problems in their lifetime, which makes it unbelievable that these issues aren’t better understood and better respected. Perhaps worst of all, these issues are rising rapidly in children and young people. The NHS recently released a report, whose key points are:

  • One in eight (12.8%) 5 to 19 year olds had at least one mental disorder when assessed in 2017
  • Emotional disorders were the most prevalent type of disorder experienced by 5 to 19 year olds in 2017 (8.1%)
  • Rates of mental disorders increased with age. 5.5% of 2 to 4 year old children experienced a mental disorder, compared to 16.9% of 17 to 19 year olds.
  • Increase over time in the prevalence of mental disorder in 5 to 15 year old. Rising from 9.7% in 1999 and 10.1% in 2004, to 11.2% in 2017
  • Emotional disorders have become more common in five to 15 year-olds – going from 4.3% in 1999 and 3.9% in 2004 to 5.8% in 2017. All other types of disorder, such as behavioural, hyperactivity and other less common disorders, have remained similar in prevalence for this age group since 1999.

My daughter already has my unruly hair and bad temper. I would do anything to make sure she doesn’t share my experience of mental health problems. While my own is significantly less severe in comparison, every suffer will have a different experience. There is a broad range of named disorders and a multitude of symptoms within each disorder.

All my life I’ve been described as “highly strung”, “bossy”, “a worrier”, “organised”. Aged 22, I was diagnosed with depression, OCD and generalised anxiety disorder. I was very lucky to embark almost immediately on a course of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). After my first session, my therapist advised I try exercising. I was sceptical about the whole thing- sure I was incredibly, crippling, sad at that time, but it was temporary, circumstantial, I wasn’t depressed. To me, depression meant an inability to get up in the morning, not showering, needing medication. I was functioning, mostly. I didn’t need therapy. I had always been active, I enjoyed most sports and was a regular in the gym, but now the thought made me physically shake. I decided to use this as an opportunity to push myself to go to a dance class. I love dancing. I’ve never had lessons but always wished I had, this seemed to be my chance. Magically, there was an adult’s street class just a five-minute walk from my house. And that’s when I knew I really did need help. I worried for hours about what to wear. I tried on every single item of clothing in my wardrobe. I packed and repacked my bag- a towel, a second one, a bigger one, a smaller one. More water. A snack. A healthier snack. A nicer water bottle. A better towel. Scared of being late, I was finally ready to leave… almost an hour early. But I stood in my hallway, unable to open the door. I stared at it until I started to shake. I started to cry. I curled up into a ball on the floor. The idea of going to this class, of meeting strangers, of being rubbish at dancing, of being wrong, knocked me to the floor. That’s my version of anxiety. It’s panic attacks when I think about being late, being judged, or unable to leave a situation.

I had refused to believe I could possibly have mental health problems because they seemed so linked to fundamental parts of my personality. My excessive worrying that people made fun of was being called OCD- intrusive thoughts. People think OCD is liking things in neat rows or turning the lights on and off 16 times before you leave a room. For many suffers, it’s so much more than that. OCD is officially diagnosed when intrusive thoughts or actions impact your daily life. For me, it’s days of not sleeping because I lie awake worrying all night, unable to stop my brain from thinking. It’s checking things, six, seven, eight times before doing anything. Everything I do is tiring, OCD is draining. It’s taking three week’s worth of clothes on a one week holiday, just in case. It’s carrying a huge rucksack everywhere, loaded with plasters, chargers, superglue, dental floss, just in case. It’s going back to my car after I’ve parked to check the handbrake, it’s going back into the house to check I’ve unplugged the hair straighteners. Twice.

But how to we turn the tide on the mental health tsunami that’s on the way? The problem with finding an easy solution is that the causes are as wide-ranging as the disorders themselves. Trauma, environmental factors and problems with brain development, to name just a few. This range of causes can make it difficult for non-suffers to understand and makes them hard to treat.

Many professionals will recommend exercise, meditation and mindfulness, and changes to diet. This is a more holistic approach, aimed at counteracting the stress and pressures of modern life that are widely blamed for these issues. Among these, social media is heavily accused of wreaking untold damage on user’s self-esteem, causing people to judge the ordinariness of themselves and their lives with the best of other people’s. Keeping up with the Influencer, though, seems to be a scapegoat for more serious societal failings that impact an individual’s wellbeing. We live in an age of stagnating wages, rocketing costs of living, and an expectation to always be productive. Instead of dealing with these issues, workplaces offer free fruit and yoga classes, the government has suggested that customer-facing workers look for signs that their customer might need help. While breaks from the internet, physical activity, and improved diet are recommended all-around for improved wellbeing, but it’s not always enough.

My own mental health improved significantly with a cross-country move. My poor self-confidence had been held up by a close family, wonderful friends, an easy job where I was often praised, and a schedule packed full of school (which I loved) and hobbies I enjoyed. Moving away from university, however, knocked each bit of this scaffolding away and I fell apart. I hated my degree, I struggled to make friends- I felt lonely, bored, and isolated. Things continued to deteriorate, and what had always been considered personality quirks took hold of my life. After my diagnosis, it was evident that changes had to be made. Moving to a city where there was more activity, more people my age, and more job opportunities, was a turning point. It would be foolish to say I was “cured”, but these issues no longer rule my everyday.

But not everyone is able to do this. Not everyone can move, not everyone can just take up pilates and join a book club. And even for those who can, sometimes, the problem is far more complex and requires therapy or medication. A serious start, however, would be to talk about it. Normalising mental health problems allows suffers to not feel so alone and find support.

So what is Force Mujer doing to help? Well. We’re hoping to be a site that shows the best of society, a place where women can feel part of a community and be inspired to what they love. Additionally, over the next few weeks, we’ll be organising meetups for anyone in the Bristol area who is lonely or finds it difficult to get out of the house. Making friends as an adult is hard and we’d like to help. If you ever want to talk, drop us an email at forcemujer@gmail.com, or go chat to us on Facebook. Keep an eye on our social media for event details!

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