While depression and anxiety are thankfully talked about more openly these days, some mental health conditions remain obscure. Here, we talk to two of the people who experience them
“Today I’ve been feeling weird, yesterday I felt weird too and the day before,” says twenty-one-year-old graphic design student Eliza. She suffers with a specific form of OCD – contamination OCD – as well as dealing with generalised anxiety. Struggling to avoid unreasonable thoughts that her food or drink have been spiked with LSD (or any kind of hallucinogenic), she experiences notions that go as far as not trusting painkillers or anything someone else has given her.
“It comes in waves. Sometimes it doesn’t get to me and other times I just won’t touch anything,” she explains, over the phone. “It’s a bit of a joke now among my friends because it’s so irrational. If I feel worried that something has been contaminated, I can’t get it out of my head, my heart starts beating quickly then usually I’ll start convincing myself that I keep seeing strange lights or movements. Most of the time when that happens it leads to a panic attack; sweating, generally freaking out, crying.”
According to the NHS, one-in-four people suffer from a mental illness in the UK and The Mental Health Foundation states that 74% of men and women have felt such intense stress they have been unfit to work. Mental health is a topic spoken about more openly at work in recent years, or with friends, online and in magazines. But while the general conversation tends to focus on anxiety and depression, the two most commonly experienced conditions in Britain, conditions like Eliza’s remain in the dark. There is still a taboo surrounding less obvious or less exposed illnesses, the ones that can be harder to explain or talk about.
“The effects of these illnesses, and the stigma that remains attached to them, can drive those experiencing the symptoms to keep it private” – Emma Carrington, Rethink Mental Illness
“We don’t typically hear much about illnesses [like contamination OCD] because not all compulsive behaviours are obvious to people not actively looking for them," says Emma Carrington from Rethink Mental Illness. “One in fifty people will experience OCD in their lifetime and not all of those will experience contamination as a symptom of their illness," she continues, so the lack of knowledge surrounding the condition is understandable.
However, the fact that the condition is rarely spoken about leads to sufferers feeling too embarrassed to tell anyone, Carrington explains; “the effects of these illnesses, and the stigma that remains attached to them can drive those experiencing the symptoms to keep it private.”
This creates a catch 22; if people aren’t coming forward to get help or explain their problems then how are we meant to know how many people suffer? And when we don’t know how many people suffer, people don’t come forward.
Laura, twenty-five, from Sussex, who suffers with trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling, and a form of OCD in itself) — another underexplored yet prevalent illness — explains that “it was at its worst when I was at school, you could really tell from looking at me, which lead to a lot of uncomfortable questions I didn’t know how to answer. These came not only from classmates but my parents too; ‘why are you doing this?’ I didn't know what the condition was, so I didn’t know what to say.”
“When I tried to explain it to a doctor I would always laugh while saying it was because I knew how crazy I sounded” – Eliza
Minette Philp, a mental health psychiatrist, explains that trichotillomania “is not the most common condition. It's fairly rare – one could argue it's rare because people won't necessarily seek help because with trichotillomania there's a lot of shame that accompanies the disorder," while online research throws up Trichstop, an online community that claims 2.5 million Americans will suffer from trichotillomania in their lifetime.
In terms of the shame Philp mentions, Laura found seeking advice difficult. “I haven’t really known where to go for help, or who to talk to. I’ve had a really mixed experience with healthcare professionals – the first I saw told me ‘to just carry on as it may be what I need right now,’ and that it would probably go away eventually,” she says. “I don’t see it in the media or know more than one other person who has it… which in turn as a teenager made me feel really ashamed. It still does as an adult.”
Eliza similarly struggled to find comfort in professionals, “when I tried to explain it to a doctor I would always laugh while saying it was because I knew how crazy I sounded,” she says. “They would usually then laugh too and brush it off like I was just being silly which didn’t make me feel like anyone would ever get it.”
“If it’s all new to you and you don’t really understand it yourself, looking online and reading that someone else has it too, brings a lot of relief” –
There seems to be some sensitivity missing, for those who are trying to reach out and do need help. These disorders come with a burden of shame and self-condemnation, but there also seems to be an absence of understanding, communication and compassion when it comes to others learning about such an unfamiliar state of consciousness. Carrington explains that “both trichotillomania and contamination OCD are quite niche forms of their wider illnesses,” so while there is a lot of information out there about OCD, there may be less on these specific types.
However, Carrington points out that intervention could be crucial for those suffering. “Any mental illness that’s left undiagnosed or untreated can continue to develop into something more serious,” Carrington continues. “When a person is living with an illness that they don’t know how to manage properly, they can continue to practice unhealthy behaviours that can affect their way of life. If the symptoms of the illness become too much to manage, the individual can develop general anxiety or depression. That’s why it’s so important to seek out help if you feel that you need it.”
For both Eliza and Laura, the internet was a place to find advice outside of the medical community: “Although I found going to a doctor unhelpful, I did find a lot of solace online,” explains Eliza. I think especially if it’s all new to you and you don’t really understand it yourself, looking online and reading that someone else has it too, brings a lot of relief.”
Laura also found that “trying to generally reduce stress is helpful, with exercise, sleep and also avoiding things that make you anxious," while Philp agrees that people underestimate the power of eating well and exercising when it comes to mental health, focusing on your body helping keeps your mind occupied and offering ease to unwanted habitual thoughts. Yoga and martial arts can be powerful tools as you can inculcate emotional stability and physical relaxation as well as becoming less impulsive and gaining self-confidence.
“It’s a holistic approach” says Philp, “which is therapy...(these conditions respond particularly well to cognitive behavioural therapy), meditation, mindfulness, exercise and good diet." Other than that, it may help to simply remember: you are not alone.