Freda Speaks out to Battle Mental Health Stigma – 08/05/09

Following the recent Depression Awareness Week, a former police officer from Wolverhampton has joined forces with Dudley and Walsall Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust (DWMHPT) to talk about her 10-year battle with the illness.

After finishing a busy week fighting crime on the streets of Walsall, WPC Freda Griffiths awoke one Saturday morning in 1988 feeling unwell.

“I woke up one Saturday morning 20 years ago and lay staring at a blank wall,” she says. “I felt sick, exhausted and unable to communicate. It all appeared to happen so suddenly and was a complete shock to those around me.”

Following a visit to her GP, Freda – who was aged 49 at the time and living in Essington – began to spiral into decline.

“I continued to deteriorate and was eventually seen by a psychiatrist. I began to receive some help through medication but I initially refused to take it because I did not believe I could possibly be suffering from a mental illness.

“People who I thought were friends were no longer around. I felt confused, isolated, lonely and very anxious. I lost weight rapidly leading to me collapsing and being admitted to a mental health unit in St Matthews Hospital, in Burntwood, where I remained for six weeks.”

Freda was no longer able to undertake her duties as a police officer and was forced to retire after completing almost 29 years with the force.

Her battle with depression continued for 10 years, during which time she lost confidence and self esteem and was admitted to a mental health unit on two further occasions.

But with the correct help and support from specialist mental health services, Freda began to get her life back on track.

“Some months after my third admission, I was seen by a community nurse who turned out to be a tower of strength and support. The nurse arranged for me to see a psychologist which was just the thing I needed.

“Eventually I found some inner strength which drove me to enrol on a college course. I did inform my college tutors of my problems and thank goodness they were supportive and understanding.

“I found the studying hard to cope with, but I stuck at it and that was the beginning of my recovery. It gave me something to focus on. I passed all my exams and was even awarded a student of the year trophy.”

Dr Shrikaanth Krishnamurthy, a psychiatrist at DWMHPT’s Dorothy Pattison Hospital in Walsall, says one in ten people will experience depression at some point in their lives.

“A lot of people will identify with Freda’s story,” he says. “Depression is a lot more common than many think and there is no way of predicting who will get it or how long it will last.

“Given the highly competitive and increasingly stressful lives we all lead, depression could affect any of us – the fact is we are all vulnerable to it.

“Depression makes people feel low, not able to enjoy life, they may feel tired easily and might just not feel motivated to do things. It can reduce people’s appetites and make them feel less like looking after themselves and going to work.

“It is normal for people to feel sad or down sometimes, depression is when these feelings don’t go away and start affecting people’s everyday lives. The good news about depression is that it does lift eventually, it is treatable and in a majority of people, it does not become severe.

“People do not become depressed by choice. An interplay of factors results in depression. Stressful events and circumstances in ones life, loss of loved ones, a change in roles and physical illness could precipitate a bout of depression. 

“Treatment for depression can involve a range of different approaches including self-help, exercise, counselling, psychological therapies and medication.”

Dr Krishnamurthy explains that many people view depression as a sign of weakness.

“There is a lot of stigma attached to mental illness in our society and the general attitude towards depression needs to change.

“Half the time people are too worried to talk about their difficulties as they fear they will be frowned upon. It takes a brave woman like Freda to share her story.”

Freda, who is now aged 70 and still living in Essington, has turned her life around and is now actively helping others who have mental ill health.

“I now do various voluntary work including representing users of mental health services in Dudley and Walsall,” she says.

“I feel very strongly about stigma surrounding mental health problems as it does immense damage to people who are suffering with such problems. I experienced it from people I knew, my employer and even my own family.

“Stigma prevents many people from seeking help in the early stages of mental ill health, thus making their condition far more difficult to treat.

“People like me need to talk openly about our experiences. Mental health problems should be seen as an illness which can be overcome with the correct treatment and support.

“I also firmly believe that the patient needs to make the effort to help themselves by seeking help and support.” 

A range of treatments are available for depression which can be tailored to suit an individual’s needs. People who think they might be suffering from depression should go and see their GP who will be able to advise them on the avenues of help and support available.