Four years ago, I self-published an autobiographical account of my battle with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The blurb on the back declares that it ‘chronicles… an introspective search for the cause’. In reference to this part of the book, a former university tutor of mine observed ‘you are very careful not to blame anyone but yourself’. And, although it was not an intentional message of the book, he is absolutely right: The implication is there that the OCD was my fault. Because that is how many people suffering with poor mental health feel, and are often made to feel, as a consequence of stigmatising attitudes. Too many times people say or infer that it is all in your head, or that you should pull yourself together, or if you only thought or did such and such you would get better.
Having devoted a large part of my life since suffering with – and being completely debilitated by – OCD, to challenging negative attitudes towards mental health, I am passionate about spreading the word that the guilt and self-blame that often accompany mental illness are not justified.
So, if I was incorrect in blaming myself for causing the OCD then where should the search for a cause begin? The founding father of psychology, Freud, looked to early childhood experiences to explain the workings of the mind, while his contemporary, Kraeplin, linked pathological processes in the brain to psychiatric disorders, then later Durkheim explored how social factors impact mental health.
It seems that the mind is affected by biological, physiological and social factors and, as Dr Jonathan Leach explains: ‘The biopsychosocial model developed by George Engel in the 1970s attempts to bring all these factors together and this approach can be seen in action in our multidisciplinary mental health teams’.
So current thinking is that mental ill health is caused by the interplay of multiple factors. Therefore, even if you did have control over some of these potential causes you cannot control them all. Mental illness is indiscriminate, so how ironic that it is still discriminated against.
If we are agreed, then, that it is wrong to lay the blame for mental health difficulties on the sufferer, as no one chooses to suffer in that way and would certainly choose to ‘snap out of it’ if they only could, does that mean that we have no control over our mental health?
Happily, the answer to this is a resounding ‘no’. Research over the last two decades has evidenced that there are various ways we can do to promote our mental well-being. Just as we can adopt healthier lifestyles to lower the risk of physical illness, we can also positively build our mental health. Moreover, just as symptom awareness and early intervention can mitigate the effects of physical illness, preventative care can be very effective in lessening the risk of developing mental illness.
I, for one, am convinced that if I have had an awareness of the signs of symptoms of OCD when the illness first started to take hold, I would not have become as severely unwell as I did. Forewarned is indeed forearmed and, now I have an intimate knowledge of how the OCD manifests itself, I am in a far better position to stop it in its tracks when it begins to invade my mind. For, although I consider myself recovered, I am by no means symptom-free and may have the disorder for the rest of my life. But, although I may not be able to control the fact that I have OCD nor have complete control over the symptoms, I can control my own life and happiness by awareness of the disorder and the interventions that can boost my mental well-being.
Jo Flack is a former teacher and co-founder of The ACE Project, a charity that supports young people suffering with mental health difficulties. She is an approved Mental Health First Aid Instructor and has worked as a freelancer for Mind. She is also a Time To Change Champion dedicated to using her lived experience to help end mental health discrimination. You can connect with her on Twitter @acesuffolk