Mind Charity Event – The charity Feast!

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This time last year, I was preparing to cycle through Cambridge on a fairly ancient pushbike dressed as Princess Leia, with a papier mache R2D2 strapped to the back of my bike. This is not just because I am a far-too-geeky exhibitionist (although it’s a contributing factor…) but my cycling escapade in the Great British Summer (read: pouring rain) raised £800 for a charity that is very important to me, Mind.

Just over a year ago a good friend of mine killed himself. This was a long time coming, in as far as he had some very serious mental health problems that were not being properly addressed with constructive healthcare. As a friend, it was maddening to hear him get a little worse every time I spoke to him. We suffered from two crucial problems – he felt as though his depression was embarrassing and shameful, and had to be hidden away from as many people as possible. Because he was not alone in that mindset, I had very little experience of dealing with someone with (frequently suicidal) depression, and had no idea what to say or do.

When he reached the point that he seemed dangerously suicidal, I googled ‘mental health helpline’ and started calling any charity that looked like it could offer me some kind of advice on what to do for my friend. Many, like the Samaritans, offer an outstanding listening service (that I know for a fact saved my friend from himself more than once) but they are not in a position to offer advice.

I eventually struck on Mind’s mental health helpline. When I said I was ‘calling about a friend’ they did not immediately assume that this was a lie, and listened carefully to what I had to say. When I explained that I wanted help knowing how to talk to my friend about his depression, what things are dangerous to say to a suicidal person, what things are known to be constructive, they were well-prepared to help. They sent me all sorts of information tailored towards helping someone who is supporting a suicidal friend/relative, and provided me a list of their services in my friend’s area that he may find helpful. Most of these were free or heavily subsidised. After my friend died, again, their website and helpline provided me with outstanding support and comfort.

I found no other mental health charity to offer such impressive services, but more to the point, Mind is one of the key voices in helping to break down the stigma of mental illness, and have it treated as just that: an illness.

This year, I am once again raising money for this charity. I am combining my love of food with a fundraising event, by inviting eight unsuspecting victims guests to my house for a meal. After the meal, they will then donate to charity what they feel that the meal was worth. The guest list is now pretty much confirmed, but as with last year, the Justgiving page I’m using to collect donations is open access. If you would like to make a donation to this charity, you can do so either through the Mind website, or on my Justgiving page (links below).

Make a one-off donation (Mind website): www.mind.org.uk/donate

Make a regular donation (Mind website): www.mind.org.uk/get_involved/donate/make_a_regular_donation

Donate via my Justgiving page: http://www.justgiving.com/Amanda-Brunton1

If you are also in a situation where you either want to seek help for mental illness, or are supporting someone else, you may find the following links helpful.

Mind website: www.mind.org.uk

– Full of useful information (I’ve picked out some links below) and also has a very useful helpline.

Mental health A-Z (Mind website): http://www.mind.org.uk/mental_health_a-z

Coping with suicidal feelings (Mind website): http://www.mind.org.uk/mental_health_a-z/8053_suicidal_feelings

Supporting someone with suicidal feelings (Mind website): http://www.mind.org.uk/mental_health_a-z/8065_suicide-supporting_someone_else

The Samaritans: http://www.samaritans.org/

– The Samaritans offer a listening service, although not advice. They are open 24/7.

You can also go to one of their branches, to talk to someone face-to-face, or contact them over email. Details below:

http://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help-you/contact-us

If you’re outside the UK, Befrienders worldwide partner with the Samaritans and offer a worldwide service: http://www.befrienders.org/

If you live in the UK, your first port of call should really be your GP. Some areas are limited in funding for mental healthcare, so it is important to know what other avenues you have for support. Nonetheless, none of the services above can replace a trained mental health practitioner.

 

Thanks for reading – I’ll be sure to post some pictures of the delicious meal I come up with after the event 🙂

 

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The other side of suicide – An inquest

I missed the call a few weeks ago while I was running an event at work, and found an answerphone message that went something along the lines of ‘it’s the coroner’s office, call us back’. When I called back, no one knew who I was or why I had been called. I had an anxious wait while they asked around the office, and by the time I got through to someone, I was just relieved to know that the cause of the phone call was to ask me to give evidence for an inquest for someone I already knew was dead. My friend had committed suicide almost a year before and I had given a statement at the time, and now I was being asked to be interviewed in the coroner’s court and give further evidence.

Prior to the inquest, it would have been nice to deal with someone with some sense of tact, or with adequate training, who could provide useful information. This didn’t happen. Instead, I dealt with someone who told me the wrong date for the inquest (‘oh that’s funny, I gave you the wrong date!’ Hilarious.) who was unable to email me details of the date, time and location of the inquest. To top it all off, he called to tell me that my friend’s father had informed him he would be travelling to the inquest alone, and did I not think he should be travelling with someone? As it was, I didn’t. I was pretty upset and stressed about the whole thing, and in regular contact with my friend’s dad. If he needed someone to go with him, that was his own decision. I wasn’t even travelling from the same part of the country but this apparently passed the coroner’s office by. I’m sure the man at the coroner’s office thought he was being caring and helpful, but in reality, the emotional blackmail was inappropriate and stressful. We had no idea where to get food or if anything would be provided, or how long it would take. Apparently asking for an events co-ordinator capable of using a calendar, providing useful information, and speaking to the bereaved with tact was out of the question.

Thankfully, on the day they took slightly better care of us. The coroner herself was very kind and approachable and tried to put everyone at their ease. The inquest is never used to apportion blame – the only purpose is to establish who the person was, how they died, when they died and where they died. We heard evidence from the pathologist who conducted the autopsy, the cognitive behavioural therapist, the hospital psychiatrist, the police officer who conducted the investigation, the housemate who found the body, and me, as a character witness.

Leading up to his death, my friend frequently told me that the health’care’ he was receiving was insufficient. That he was routinely dismissed, downgraded from urgent care, talked down to and passed from one doctor to another. That he found the therapy sessions to be distressing and draining and that he would go from one person to another, asked uncomfortable and personal questions about his mental distress and suicidal urges, only to be told he just needed to try harder to engage with the therapies and not to kill himself. He would go back home, try harder, give up, try to kill himself, give himself over to therapy again, get told to try harder, get sent home. Wash, rinse, repeat. There are only so many times that a vulnerable and sick person can go through this process before they begin to believe it isn’t worth trying any more, and stop asking for ‘help’.

I was expecting (hoping) to find some poor psychiatrist that knew he was in need of urgent care, maybe even inpatient care, who just didn’t have the resources to treat him. Other mental health professionals I know have this problem all the time – that someone is sick and clearly needs more care, but that there just aren’t the resources to give it. To some extent we saw this with his therapist, who identified that he was far too complex a case for the level of care she was trained and able to offer, and when he came to her saying that he had planned a method and date to kill himself, and just needed to get hold of the pills, she rang all the alarm bells at the hospital she could to try and get him more appropriate help.

What I did not expect was that this was an utterly pointless dead end. The hospital had three levels of care:

Routine: regular three-month checkups

Urgent: a worsening in condition that merited being seen in the next ten working days

Critical: the patient needs to be seen in the next four hours. The patient will do harm to themselves, or someone else without intervention.

Despite outlining suicide plans to a therapist and trying other methods in between (it presumably took a while to get hold of the pills he needed to die) my friend was never considered critical. We were given no answers as to what he would have had to do to be taken that seriously, to have someone believe that he meant himself serious and immediate harm. The psychiatrist simply stated that he had seemed articulate, intelligent and ‘with it’ and was therefore not a high risk patient. My friend was a well-spoken, intelligent, English graduate. Even on the day he died, none of his closest friends guessed at his intentions. Because those who are mentally ill and unstable are not all raving, gibbering maniacs incapable of stringing a sentence together. I know this – the psychiatrist on the other hand seemed flabbergasted.

All I heard all day was ‘we followed protocol’, or ‘it’s ‘XXXX’s responsibility really’ or ‘it didn’t seem like he was going to do it right away’, even when he told his therapist he expected to be dead within the month. My friend told his therapist he wouldn’t give her all the details of his plans as then someone would try to stop him. So when after a hospital appointment where the psychiatrist sent him home after another ‘try harder at your therapy’ consultation with nothing more constructive than a self help book, my friend discharged himself from care, and they simply wrote up the discharge letter the next day. No one saw the appalling lack of support as an issue. No one saw him telling the therapist that he ‘wouldn’t need anyone’s help anymore’ as a sign for concern. And then a few days later, he was dead.

But apparently, this is fine, because protocol was followed. Apparently this is fine, because he wasn’t a ‘critical’ case. Apparently, unless you are a raving lunatic, frothing at the mouth, you never will be. And nothing more will come of this injustice and that practitioner will just go back to following routine. I have never been more angry. I left the room, and called the man a bastard, a shite, a fuckwit, an uncaring cunt, a shit-for-brains and briefly felt better until I realised that I didn’t have the words to express my contempt for this man or the system he represented.

I don’t think that even with proper care my friend could necessarily be saved. He wanted to die. But I do think he deserved better – a better chance at getting well, more compassion, more dignity. And this inquest, distressing as it was, will do nothing to change the system that failed him so badly. And so I ask for three things from you today.

1.) Take mental health seriously. Attention-seeking isn’t a cause for contempt, it is a crude acknowledgement that help is needed. It is not a cause for shame or blame any more than cancer, diabetes, flu, or any other illness is.

2.) Mental healthcare isn’t always up to standard. If your friend tells you they aren’t getting help, take them seriously. Believe that some therapists are unhelpful and condescending or that care isn’t always available. Help them build a network of support so that they don’t have to rely on whatever the doctor offers.

3.) Talk about it. Change it. Don’t keep this issue hidden. Donate to Mind. Fundraise. Raise awareness. Don’t suffer in silence.

On Asperger’s Syndrome and getting a diagnosis

For a blog with Asperger’s in the tagline, I haven’t really discussed it much on here. To anyone who knows the Brunton family, Asperger’s syndrome goes without saying. My brother in law was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (or AS) aged about ten – although my father in law never sought a formal diagnosis, we’re all pretty certain that he also has the condition. Most recently, my four year old nephew has just been diagnosed with Asperger’s. As I will explain, I am now also seeking a consultation about the possibility I may have AS, and whatever the diagnosis, I intend to make a series of posts about the process. I have found sourcing information on this a difficult experience, so I hope this collection of posts will in turn make it easier for someone else. In the interests of honesty, I should also point out that I will edit these posts as I go, in case any of the information in them turns out to be misleading or incorrect – but I’ll flag it up as I do so that the description of the process of finding this information remains intact.

Asperger’s is a term that has undergone a significant dilution in meaning. It is a word which is very easy to throw around, as in ‘oh he’s just so Asperger’s’ when referring to someone who is in truth, nothing of the sort. The term ‘Asperger’s’ has entered common parlance to the extent that everyone who has a family member or work colleague who is a little awkward, or a touch pedantic is confidently asserted as ‘A bit Asperger’s’. Although the official diagnostic criteria for AS have substantially developed over time, and it is a catch-all term for a spectrum of symptoms, Asperger’s Syndrome actually refers to a very specific set of social and developmental criteria, which are broadly speaking common to most individuals with the condition.

So what is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Diagnostic criteria

At present, the most commonly accepted diagnostic criteria are these (source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV)

A. Qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:
  • marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction
  • failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
  • lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
  • lack of social or emotional reciprocity
B. Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:
  • encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity of focus
  • apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals
  • stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g., hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements)
  • persistent preoccupation with parts of objects
C. The disturbance causes clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
D. There is no clinically significant general delay in language e.g., single words used by age two years, communicative phrases used by age three years).
E. There is no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self-help skills, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction), and curiosity about the environment in childhood.
F. Criteria are not met for another specific pervasive developmental disorder or schizophrenia.

It is important to consider that in the latest revision of the DSM, it is likely that the term Asperger’s is going to be retired in favour of ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder. I don’t know yet what the ramifications for diagnosis will be, but nor does anyone it seems. For the time being, this is the benchmark for most experts.

EDIT 18/03/2013: Asperger’s will not be in the next DSM edition in favour as including it as part of High Functioning Autism. I suspect however, that the term will stay in use amongst practitioners for some time, so I’m keeping this post up here even if soon it will be medically obsolete. High Functioning Autism is a bit obscure and few people are likely to look for help for something they’ve never heard of, so Asperger’s resources remain very useful.

What does this actually mean?

The DSM criteria may come across as so much medical jargon but in effect, this can be simplified into a number of common symptoms. AS patients are likely to find reading social cues difficult – such as identifying when a listener has become bored by a conversation. This is particularly tricky, as people with AS are likely to have strong, preoccupying interests that they are all too happy to talk about – irrespective of whether the person they are talking to is listening. The AS person is also likely to bring the conversation around to the safe territory of themselves, and their own interests rather than the much more difficult task of genuine two-way conversation.

Social ‘rules’ have to be learned and aren’t as easily assimilated into day-to-day life as they are for other people. This may come across as speaking in an overly blunt manner, or it may be something so quantifiable as not knowing how close to stand to someone. Social chit-chat is another difficulty – it doesn’t have a purpose, and for a person who needs to see a quantifiable reason for social interaction, it just doesn’t make sense. They are likely to experience a sort of ‘overload’ in crowded and noisy situations, and some experience a kind of meltdown or panic attack in these ‘trigger’ situations. In fact, many report that in stressful situations, sounds become louder, and more intrusive. This can be true of any of the senses, but touch and sound seem the most common. It may also go the other way and an AS person may experience sensory dullness, which can lead to children wanting to eat non-food objects (as their sense of taste is dulled), or being particularly clumsy. The former is something we think my nephew may experience – although it will become easier to tell as he gets older.

They are far less likely (although not necessarily) to be preoccupied with personal appearance, and are likely to exhibit categorising behaviours – for example, my nephew from an early age has been very insistent in lining his toys up by order of colour or size. They are likely to focus on small details and obsess over minor problems rather than seeing the bigger picture. Amongst other key symptoms, people with AS are likely to prefer following a strict routine, and will not appreciate plans being changed. Another key sympton is exhibiting some sort of repetitive motion as well, such as hand flapping, especially when stressed. Doing things the same way every time is not just comfortingly repetitive – it is almost a necessity. They are likely to see the world in very black and white terms, and may struggle to understand how other people can see it in another way. All in all they are likely to come across as geeky or awkward.

What causes Asperger’s and who gets it?

We don’t really know what causes it, and can only theorise as to why some people find it so much harder than others to read social cues, and behave in a manner than is considered ‘normal’. It is thought to be strongly genetically linked (and often runs in families) with some environmental factors. It is not a product of upbringing. Simon Baron-Cohen (pretty much the authority on Autism) has theorised that autism and related conditions are as a result of ‘extreme male brain’ (reference: Baren-Cohen: 1999, link to paper here) and it is certainly true that the lack of empathy and socialisation which is present in the most severe cases suggests an exaggeration of behaviours that are, when presented to a lesser degree, considered typically ‘male’. Asperger’s is typically a male condition – only 1 in 4 diagnosed are female. Increasingly this figure is considered deceptively low, and Dr Judith Gould, director of the NAS’s Lorna Wing Centre, has recently been quoted as believing the ratio to be closer to 1:1.5 female:male. The hefty lean towards male diagnosis in current figures is potentially something of a self-fulfilling prophecy – because men are diagnosed with Asperger’s, men are expected to be diagnosed with Asperger’s, and the DSM diagnostic criteria anticipate symptoms as men experience them.

Women with the condition are much more likely to be able to adapt to hide the symptoms, but also often just come across as a bit tomboyish – one of the lads. Their symptoms are disguised by this adaptability, and health professionals who are used to seeing AS as presented by young boys may not identify the AS girl as belonging to the same category. For example, lack of social imagination (broadly speaking, being able to see someone else’s point of view, being able to accommodate how they feel – in short, empathy) is one of the key diagnostic criteria. It often manifests itself in a lack of make-believe play, especially a difficulty in engaging in this type of play with other children. AS girls are far more likely to throw themselves into this alternative, easier world, and so do not necessarily get identified as presenting a behaviour which is inherently AS.

For me, as someone who married into a family where Asperger’s is more the norm than ‘neurotypical’ (and in fact live with my father in law, who I’m sure would agree with me is a pretty textbook case) it’s a day to day reality which actually affects us all very little. In a family environment very supportive of the specific difficulties of living with Asperger’s, we don’t precisely tip-toe around situations which are likely to prompt a freak out from my father in law or nephew – we are just sensitive to what is likely to be an inordinately stressful event. For my nephew, vocalising what has upset him is tricky, but becoming better. Changes of plan (or changes to his expectations) are very stressful, no matter how minor. As he has got older, the symptoms have become easier to recognise and so after several months of assessments, we have now got a positive diagnosis. AS can make life quite stressful – but it doesn’t have to dictate your whole life.

Diagnosis

Having seen my nephew going through the process of assessment for AS, I am now strongly considering getting an assessment myself. Behaviours which are now recognised in him as particularly AS are ones which I recognise in myself, both as an adult, and as a child of his age. I exhibit several of the key diagnostic criteria for AS, in particular categorising behaviours, inflexibility with regard changes of plan, repetitive behaviour in both adherence to routine, and hand flapping/twisting when stressed. I have difficulty making new friends, and a very black and white world view. More than that, I am also likely to experience the same ‘overload’ in an excessively noisy or crowded situation, such as a busy supermarket, which is at best, a bit stressful, at worst, produces something akin to a panic attack. In fact, this doesn’t always happen at a busy supermarket – I sometimes experience a similar overload just when out with friends – even if I am looking forward to seeing them. I worry and stress continually over minor details. I offend people all the time without understanding why. I don’t get people. Based on a very preliminary assessment from my mum, I also exhibited many of the developmental features of a child with AS when growing up. Once I have plucked up the courage, I’ll be going to my GP to talk about AS assessment, or if not, to discuss the cause behind the panic attacks.

I’ve wondered about AS for some time, but always considered it something of an over-reaction. It took some time and some research to get to the point where I felt that it was worth asking for assessment. The first port of call is the National Autistic Society (or NAS). Their website is full of useful information, and their helpline service is fantastic, and free, even from most mobiles. They can tell you what diagnostic resources are available in your area either for adults, or a child. You’re likely to be asked to get a referral from a GP even for a privately paid for assessment, which will be the next step for me.

I am pretty stressed about seeing a GP and don’t even have an appointment yet. Nonetheless, the NAS have posted me a series of materials and preliminary Autism Quotient tests that may make me feel more prepared for the meeting. The test won’t tell you if you have AS – the thing is that nearly all of the symptoms may be found (at least individually) in a neurotypical person. It is the severity, and the combination of many of these factors which makes a person AS. A test will at least highlight if you consider yourself to have enough of the key indicators that you may be worth further consideration. Similarly, you may not score highly on the test and still have AS – you just may cope with it well. It is not a diagnosis, but for me, was a step towards feeling confident and justified in asking for something that seems a little indulgent. The test they sent me can be found here.

Asking for a diagnosis or at least an assessment is not an over-reaction, and actually, it is not an unnecessary indulgence. A diagnosis can help fill in the blanks for an adult who has always wondered why they are a bit different. It can connect you to a network of people who have similar problems, and above all, a support network to help you cope with day to day difficulties. It is a massive reassurance to many just to know they are not abnormal, and they are not alone. Provided I get the go-ahead from my GP (which I may not) I’ll be blogging about the process of assessment and write up about the experience. If I am assessed as not having AS, this is equally important. I get panic attacks for a reason, and ruling out something that feels like a common denominator is an important step towards identifying what does cause me this stress and trouble.

The final word on AS – it is not an illness. People with AS are not ‘sufferers’. It is not in fact, a problem at all per se. It is the way you are, and many Asperger’s patients/relatives (myself included) agree that it does not require a cure. It is who you are as a person. It is your own unique perspective on the world and nobody really requires you to change it. Sometimes, Autism and AS make life difficult and complicated, and sometimes these conditions mean that patients require additional advice or counselling to live in a world as someone a little bit different, when the rest of the world appears to value ‘normal’. However, all the best people agree that there is nothing wrong with ‘different’ and there is nothing wrong with Asperger’s.

This has been a long post, but with a bit of luck, the next woman to think she may not just be going round the twist and may have Asperger’s is a little better equipped with resources to start looking into it further. Thanks for reading 🙂

Life after suicide – a thank you post

Ok boys and girls, this is a seriously neglected blog, and I have lots of fun, adventure and food related posts coming up (I promise!) but first there are some thank yous to make. What I would like to do with this post is to say a massive thank you to everyone who supported me in my comedy charity bike ride which I did for Mind after my friend ended his own life. I started with the distant hope of raising £100 for Mind – I called my mum to ask if this was reasonable. We both though it was a little high and then decided we probably knew ten people between us who could be relied upon to donate £10.

I raised £800.

The messages of love and support on the webpage have been of great comfort to me, and many others. I am amazed by the generosity of everyone who has donated – sometimes total strangers, some even from overseas. Even recently, two people that Brunton number 1 and I know have had real issues with depression that we have been unable to talk to them about because it remains unacknowledged and taboo. This is not acceptable – and Mind is just one of many charities that is seeing that changed. I’m proud to have been able to support this amazing charity, and grateful to all the people that have made it possible. I can’t tell you all just how much it has meant to me that so many people thought this was a cause worth donating to.

Moving on

Suicide itself is still incredibly taboo, and many people are surprised at the frankness with which I tell them that my friend took his own life. I personally feel nothing for the stigma or the taboo – I knew my friend, and I know that his life is worth no less to me for the fact that he ended it. However, it has still been a difficult thing to reconcile, although in many ways it gets better over time. The abruptness of the death undoubtedly makes assimilating the loss into my life, reconciling the idea that my friend has gone, very difficult. He has become both more and less to me all at once – I worry continually that I’ll forget silly things, like what his voice sounded like. As much as it surprises me how quickly certain memories have become vague, it is as though other memories I forgot that I had have come out of hiding. Things which never used to make me think of Burgess now often serve as a (sometimes sad) reminder – things like old tape decks and record players, Neon Bible, and in-jokes that no one gets any more. I read our old emails and remember that before the depression took hold there was a rich and varied life there, and that we were awesome together.

‘Are you Twiglet?’

The thing that actually makes me the saddest is the loss of my nickname – only Burgess ever called me it. It was funny (and awkward) when my suicide note was addressed to ‘Twiglet’ with an accompanying note saying ‘someone please call Twiglet’ and my number. Unfortunately no one knew who the hell Twiglet was and I was saved in his phone and address book as ‘Twiglet’. When the police eventually called there was an awkward ‘are you Twiglet?’ conversation that was so funny I wanted to be able to tell Burgess – it was only when I realised I couldn’t that the enormity of what had happened hit me. Now no one gets to call me Twiglet, and it surprises me every time how sad that makes me. I’ve also learned that it is not appropriate to laugh hysterically at being called Twiglet by a police officer. I think I weirded that poor lady out more than a little bit.

I’m sure any of you who were close to Burgess (and even some who weren’t) will relate to the feeling that it never feels like the right time to ‘move on’. I find myself thinking I wish that his death would just stop making me sad, and then feeling terribly disrespectful because it should be a sad-making thing. I’m reliably assured this is all part of the process. The sense of loss doesn’t really go away – you just get used to the weight of it on your shoulders, get used to the feeling that he is actually gone. Burgess used to refer to suicide as ‘leaving’ or ‘catching the bus’ and it never really felt like a permanent thing, almost as though you could just be dead for a while until you got better, like some kind of extreme rehab. Having spent months talking about suicide this way, I had almost become desensitised to what suicide would actually mean, and the permanence of what he had done to himself came as an awful shock. It makes it hard to accept that until we meet again in the great Western Bank library in the sky, this is it. I’m gradually getting used to the idea of life without my pal – it’s a slow process, but I’m getting there. I wish all the best for anyone reading this who is going through the same.

Continuing support

No one deserves to live a life so troubled that they feel as though they need to take their own life, and no one deserves to lose a friend that way – just as no one deserves to die of cancer, or AIDs. That’s why I’ll probably continue to make regular donations to Mind.

My page is open to one-off donations until the end of the month, so anyone who thinks that cycling over 25k in the rain dressed as princess Leia with accompanying R2D2 merits sponsorship there’s still time to rock up and sponsor me.

http://www.justgiving.com/Amanda-Brunton

There’s also a main ‘In Memory’ page where people can continue to do ‘In Memory’ sponsorship events and read all the lovely comments people have posted, or donate directly to Mind.

http://www.justgiving.com/remember/20094/Alex-Burgess

So thanks to all the generous people who made this all possible (you’re all awesome!) and thanks to all the people who’ve been instrumental in helping me through this difficult time (you all get a pat on the back).

Burgess would be super embarrassed by all this fuss, but doesn’t get to do anything about it, so here’s a chirpy mugshot of us both 🙂 We made an awesome pair!

On depression, suicide, and Star Wars fancy dress

For those of you who know me, then I am sure this post is only going to describe an event I am sure you are all aware of. However, the blog is increasingly getting views from outside of  my immediate friends and family, and so I shall start at the beginning.

8 weeks ago one of my closest friends took the decision to end his own life.

I have not been totally truthful here – this is not the beginning of the story. However, poor mental health is such a taboo subject that it is often only from this point that friends or family become aware that one of their loved ones is suffering from a potentially life-threatening illness. The days of ‘The Big C’ are long since over; cancer is no longer a taboo subject which simply cannot be mentioned in polite conversation, and has to be hidden away by the sufferer. Yes, it’s frightening. Yes, it can feel defeatist, or like weakness to admit to those around you that you suffer with an illness that you cannot hope to fight without extensive treatment, and that you are afraid of the outcome. However, sufferers of this (often long-term) illness are quite rightly treated now with the respect and sympathy they deserve, rather than fear and shame.

My hope is that one day, depression and mental illness can be given the same respect. It is an illness which is not, on the whole, the fault of the sufferer. Nonetheless, the stigma associated with it dictates that the sufferer is often treated as though they can just ‘cheer up’, as though there is some blame to be apportioned to them for their suffering, or that treatment is an unnecessary luxury. Attention seeking somehow. Consider for a moment how it must feel to be afraid to die of cancer – an illness that you as an individual are powerless to stop. Now consider what that fear of death represents when you are afraid you may simply do it to yourself, and feel equally powerless. You expect nobody to take your fears seriously, and moreover, in order to receive treatment you have to beg, explaining over and over what you fear you may do to yourself. For many, this is a terrifying reality from which suicide provides the ultimate relief.

So what really happened?

The more truthful account of my friend’s life and death is this: he was a wonderful, talented, intelligent young man. Despite mental and physical illness of a severity that would have rendered a less robust person incapacitated, he achieved an outstanding 2:1 in English literature from a top university. He was a dedicated friend, a maverick, a lover of gin and a thoroughly entertaining person to be around. He had terrible taste in music, clothes and wine. He was high maintenance. He needed continuous emotional support to continue to live life as normal. He didn’t like to ‘be a burden’ to those around him, and although he was often hard work, he was an equally generous friend in return.

The last eight months saw an accelerated worsening of the depression, anxiety, and physical illness from which he had suffered for many years. His ability to go about day-to-day life was eroded a little bit at a time. Occupational health forms require that you declare mental health problems – they also ensure that you are almost unemployable. Mental health’care’ on the NHS is a total lottery depending on funding. In my friend’s case, he was sent home from hospital with a self help book when his therapist said that his suicical feelings had become out of control. Two weeks later he was found dead.

The mother of a close friend of mine is a mental health nurse, who describes a mental healthcare system almost entirely propped up by charities. These charities are having their funding systematically cut back, yet no state-sponsored health service has taken their place. Hopefully no one reading this blog will ever have to experience what my friend suffered – the humiliation of begging for help, while suffering with one of the cruellest illnesses of them all. However, the sad fact is that one in four of us will suffer from poor mental health. Even if you don’t experience it yourself, odds on someone you know will.

Why am I telling you all this you may ask.

Because something needs to be done. The hardest part about all this is that my friend isn’t coming back. We couldn’t save him. All we can hope to believe is that he is now experiencing in death the peace that he desperately wanted in life. This doesn’t solve the fact that for many out there, they are still living out the reality of mental illness without adequate support, feeling unable to express to those around them the suffering they are experiencing.

In just over a week I will be cycling 20k on my 35 year old, beaten up Raleigh shopper. I’m doing it dressed as princess Leia (I decided to auction off the right to pick my fancy dress…) and I have made a home made R2D2 to put on the back of the bike for running repairs. Mental illness isn’t always depressing. My friend would be laughing himself silly if he knew I was doing this now! I’m doing it for the charity Mind, as it helped support my friend and I through the worst of times. The most important thing they do is make mental illness talked about, and make help accessible. If you want to donate, hop on over here:

http://www.justgiving.com/Amanda-Brunton

Your support will be very much appreciated, but more importantly it’s the attitude that’s got to change. People have got to start seeing this as a real and treatable illness. People have got to stop believing that it is the fault of the sufferer. And above all, we have to start prioritising mental healthcare rather than letting vulnerable individuals fall by the wayside.

Rant over – normal cheery, food-related service will return with the next post 🙂