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Conversation, Education, Change.

6 May

by Katie Finch

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Freedom of Mind Festival co-founder, Katie Finch, gives a personal account of what Freedom of Mind means to her and why it’s so important to talk about mental health and emotional wellbeing.

TW: self harm and suicide.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am very open when it comes to discussing my mental health and emotional wellbeing. For the most part everyone has been accepting and supportive of whatever I had to say and that itself has been a crucial part of my recovery. But I have only started talking about mental health in the last few years; only recently had those empowering conversations which have allowed me to grow in strength and confidence. I know now that if I could say one thing to my past self, it would simply be to open up sooner and to not hide away thinking that your brain is faulty, but that you deserve help and you don’t have to remain strong for everyone else. For me, Freedom of Mind Festival is a way of giving other people the confidence and space to be as open as am today.

This is a very honest account of why I am so passionate about conversation and mental health. It is not easy reading and contains a trigger warning for self-harm and suicide. I have included some pictures which I hope will contrast with the typical ‘headclutcher’ depiction of mental illness. These photos detract from the assumption that depression causes you to cry endlessly and always look miserable. Mental illness is not obvious and, like anything, fluctuates with intensity. There are small moments of happiness in these pictures and I want them to give hope to people who are experiencing depression, to show there is still good in the world and things can get better.

10 year old me and my little sister

10 year old me and my little sister

As a child I was intelligent, serious and strong. I didn’t let on if I was upset, I never cried and I was the friend who people spoke to about their issues. I was the ‘clever one’ who generally did well in exams. To me, my problems weren’t as serious as everyone else’s and it was my responsibility to solve things and to get everything right. If I couldn’t reach my own incredibly high standards then I had failed and deserved punishment. In reality what was going on in my head was abuse – not from an external source but from myself.

At around 8 years old I remember criticising, mentally torturing myself to the point of hysterics and what I now know was a panic attack. I didn’t feel I deserved help or sympathy and so didn’t seek it. I told no one and continued the next day as if nothing had happened. This was the start of a cycle, a ritual that happened every night for over ten years. A lot of people assume that self-harm has to be cutting or some form of physical damage, but I truly believe that the mental harm I was doing to myself had a greater impact than physical self-harm did. Years later, when I did start physically self-harming, I wasn’t able to do the same level of damage without anyone realising, so didn’t have any want to continue.

As a teenager I kept myself as busy and distracted as I could. The daily battle to keep a brave face and not let on any internal chaos left me exhausted and vulnerable, so for the first time I actually said something. I made a reference to physical self-harm to a friend and told her some of the things that had been bothering me. Although she listened and offered some comfort, the knowledge of mental health and what services or support was available was pretty non-existent. We had never discussed it in school, the media portrayal was inaccurate and stigmatising and I did not feel able to tell an adult. My friends didn’t know how to handle this information or discuss it and so I put it back in the ever growing hole that was my self-worth. I felt like my problems weren’t bad enough to get help and I was just seeking attention. To make it harder, I didn’t want to explicitly say what was wrong – I wanted people to notice something was wrong.

All through my A-Levels I tried to keep smiling

All through my A-Levels I tried to keep smiling

The summer after my first year at university I reached crisis point. Things had been steadily getting worse and my emotions were limited to either numbness or pain. I alienated my friends and family; I was unable to hold a normal conversation; I couldn’t eat or wash and even using the toilet felt like a marathon. At that point I felt there was only one option.

My only criteria was that everyone I knew wouldn’t have to see me and that I would do it in such a way to cause the least amount of pain to everyone else. I had managed to lie my way into a 4 hour gap where everyone would think I was elsewhere and therefore be unlikely to check up on me. My memory of this is surprisingly unclear – I think the amount of pain and the pressure I felt in my head was so much I hardly knew what I was doing at the time let alone afterwards.

At 19 I felt my lowest

At 19 I felt my lowest

A lot of people assume that a suicide attempt means that person wants to die. I didn’t want to die. I had aspirations and dreams, but I felt so much pain that I wanted to cease to exist. I sat crying, criticising myself and in the end I ran out of ideas. The risk of hurting everyone else was too great and I called a helpline. I don’t remember which one, or how long I was on the phone, but it was after dark by the time the nice lady on the other end convinced me to go home. My dad picked me up, oblivious as to what had just happened, asked how my day had been. I lied saying it was fine. Even then I didn’t feel able to talk.

Back at university my friends could see that something wasn’t right and convinced me to seek help. I had an incredible GP who took me seriously, listened to my story for well over the allocated 10 minutes and put me in contact with the relevant people. I started counselling, I spoke to my flatmates and friends and finally opened up to my family. In the space of about six months I went from having a decade long build-up of repressed emotion and turmoil to speaking openly about how I felt. Once I had started talking it was like opening a tap, emotions came rushing back, my friendships became stronger and I felt able to start living the life I wanted. I refused to censor myself and have since spoken increasingly about my struggles and triumphs.

I’m not going to lie and say the pain immediately went away, recovery is a long and uneven path I am still on. However, without those initial conversations with the lady on the phone and my friends at university, I wouldn’t have made it. I needed someone to listen to me, to help me validate my existence and give me the opportunity to feel like I meant something. When you talk about looking after your mental health, a lot of people assume that it involves long counselling sessions or tablets or medical intervention. To me it is the everyday changes in your life that make the biggest difference. Having honest conversations, making sure you sleep properly, taking the time out to do something for yourself. These aren’t just things that you need to retain a good mental health: these are things you deserve. If nothing else, that’s the message I want people to take from Freedom of Mind Festival.

You deserve to have good mental health.

Follow Katie on Twitter for more updates.

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