My secret companion
Living with a mental illness in Germany
30 Degrees, bright sunshine, kids are eating ice-cream outside of the window. Everybody who can is outside today, enjoying the one of the few summer days that Germany offers to his habitants. Everybody, but Heike. Heike is forty-five years old and hasn't left the hause since two years. Most of her sentences begin with the words `I used to be`. When you listen to her she is going to tell you about a younger woman, that was also called Heike. In the beginning of her thirties she was not only successful in work, but also a happy person. Under the week she worked as a teacher, at the weekends she met with her friends or spent time with her boyfriend. She went out, laughed and enjoyed live. „But then the fear came“ explains Heike. She is sitting there, looking older the she is, the shoulders pulled up, the upper body bent forward and the fingers firmly interlocked, facing the window. „In the beginning i only felt uncomfortable in some situations like driving a log way on the highway alone but the it got worse and worse. I couldn't go to work, because I couldn't be in a tram anymore, I couldn't stand the feeling of waiting the a queue of the supermarket, so I asked my nephew for help and one day I realized that I hadn't left the house for one moth“. This moth turned into tow years.
Heike is suffering under a mental Illness called panic attacks with agoraphobia. Her fear prevents her from leaving the house. Heike is now living in a psychotherapy clinic, but she was only able to get there under heavy medication. What she got to know there is, that she is not alone. 14,2% of all germans between 18 and 65 suffer at least once in their live under a anxiety disorder. The percentage of mental illness in Germany is even higher. 33,3 % of the germans suffer under a mental disease every year.
Dr. Philer, an apprentice to a psychological psychotherapist who works in a psychiatric day hospital explained, that most of his patients suffer under depressions. Anxiety disorders is the second common disease, followed by addictive disorders. He defines the main features of an anxiety disorders as a persistent fear or avoidance, which leads escape from certain situations or objects. If the patient adjourns to a situation of his fears, typical anxiety symptoms, such as sweating, trembling, blushing, up to dizziness and short breath. And yet is fear acompletely normal reaction of the body to dangerous situations. Anxiety disorder patients often have experienced something in their lives, which makes them listen much more sensitively to their body signals and they misvalue the perceived physical changes in the body, which are usually completely natural. Due to the negative evaluation the patient comes to the conclusion that something is not in order. This triggers fear in him, which in turn leads to further physical symptoms. The patient can feel now even more (negative valued) changes of his body and interprets them again. Thus, the fear grows . A vicious circle accrues.
`At some point I just stopped going to phone when someone called . I didn't know how to explain them that only the thought of going out of the door made that sweat broke out on his forehead, my hands got wet and I got weak-kneed. (…) And after some time the phone stayed silent.` describes Heike a problem, that a lot of mental illness patients have. Mental diseases are still a tabu-issue in Germany. In November 2011 football star Robert Enke took his own live. Previously he suffered under Depressions for about eight years. Nobody had known, the football community was shocked. What does that say about a society, that no one may publicly display weakness? At a time where a person's value is measured by its conductivity, its ability to work, it is difficult to confess that you simply have lost your power. You out yourself as `temporary useless`, and who wants do that? Withal mental illnesses are, referring to Dr. Phieler, an alarm signal that something in your live doesn't work as it should be and no later than now the time has come to change anything.
Taking a stand for a better understanding of sick people, that was what Jana Selig wanted to da. Feeling misunderstood by the world, this feeling knows the Twitter user from Berlin very well. She suffers under depressions for more than ten years since she was sixteen and often felt misunderstood by her environment. Therefore she started to post under the pseudonym Jenna Shotgun on twitter about her disease. You can read posts like: ´If you can not even manage to take the packet you've been looking forward to for weeks, never mind to unpack it.`. After a few posts like that user Mali_2 decided to give the posts of Jenna an own platform. She founded the hashtag #notjustsad, were everybody could read and write about his or her experiences with the disease. With overwhelming success.
After a few days thousands of users twittered through #notjustsad.and it got in the interest of the media. Depressions and mental illnesses made it to the agenda of most of the german tv-shows and newspapers.
Not without reason, the world health organisation states that 350 Million people world wide suffer under a depression. In germany there are at the moment four Million affected people, every fifth person gets a depression at least one time in its live, 9.000 suicides are blamed on her every year. Furthermore the WHO guesses that till 2020 depression will be the second common disease in the western world.
Also Dr. Phieler has the feeling, that the number of patients, and therefore the number of persons with mental illnesses is raising. He sees the working environment and our urge to be flexible as one triggering Factor: `at least in Germany, the education and the world of work is not designed to stay long at one place, thus the people leave old social contacts and make new ones at new places, as a consequence one has less deeper relationships and less true friendships or it is more difficult to build and maintain them. But humans are gregarious animal. Stable, supportive social relationships are a protective factor, reducing the likelihood of being mentally ill. However, the demand for flexibility and mobility in professional life leads to much less stable, long-term and intimate relationships `.
But despite a growing community of concerned the people who suffer under the symptoms of depressions, like sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, feelings of tiredness, and poor concentration still feel uncomfortable to speak about their disease. The internet seems to offer an escape. It garants anonymity with the liberty to share all your thoughts. Jenna Shotgun twittered about that feeling: ´To tell the Internet more than to the family, because you feel understood there`. More and more ill people use the internet as a catalyst for their feelings.
And proposals like that are not bad, thinks also Dr.Phieler, affected people learn very much from the mutual exchange, but that should not mean that the Internet can replace the real encounter between two people. Although in his opinion some internet webpages are very well developed, he remains, that this features can not replace the therapeutic relationship between a psychotherapist and the patient.
However, the way to a professional treatment in a clinic is long. Referring to a study of Zeit Online affected have to wait up to six month and more in most of the federal states, for some full time places the patient has to wait up to two years. Like Gerd, fifty-five years, who has just finished his time in a day clinic after he successful managed to feel better in a full-time hospital. ´I had to wait seven month until I could go to the hospital`, he told, `I had to go to therapy sometimes three times a week, and my therapist had a lot work with me in this time. (…) I often thought about, huh, ending my live, in that time`. And with this thoughts of suicide he is not alone. Jenna Shotgone posted a few days ago: ´Talking. About dying and the feeling of wanting to die. This is also important`. Just these people are left alone of our Welfare system. Withal it is so easy to help. Fortunately, depression is a disease with very good chances of recovery. Today, more than 80 percent of all patients can treat their severe depression successfully. `After the time in the clinic I feel good at some days´, says Gerd, `my next goal is to get a job agin, because I don´t want to fall in that black whole again`.
And also Heike feels better now: `I feel like I managed the biggest part. To come here and have the courage to start to work on my fear costed me so much negation. (…) But here are people who push me back in the right direction when i loose my courage and they also help up when I felt down`.
We, as a society can learn from these words how we can help people with mentally illnesses. By listening to them, giving them encouragement and most important, by helping them up when they struggled.