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Time to talk: Cheryle Brown breaks the silence on mental health

As physical isolation has plummeted the nation’s mental wellbeing, the National Library of Scotland has highlighted the need for openness and connectivity in its online ‘Time to Talk’ event. On the 4th of February mental health awareness advocate and writer Cheryle Brown shared her experiences of mental illness, anxiety, and depression, and the coping mechanisms she has found by ‘breaking the silence’. These include her written contributions to Maria Alfieri’s anthology The Silent Scream: An Anthology of Despair, Struggle and Hope, published in February 2020, which helped her own healing process and were created to ‘offer a hand in dark moments’.

Brown began with a breathing exercise to invite feelings of relief, setting the tone for her focus on the isolating effects of being unable to talk, and explained how important it is to eradicate the stigma around mental health by creating an open and comfortable conversation. Brown also covered the variety of problems that ignoring mental health brings, including the lack of support disadvantaging men due to gender stereotypes of the ‘strong silent type’ that prevents many men from opening up.

‘If we cannot tell our story, the story begins to tell us’: Brown acknowledged the bravery and vulnerability required to speak out while emphasising the necessity of doing so. She shared some of her own harrowing experiences, such as losing close friends to suicide, and afterwards feeling wrapped in guilt and ‘engulfed in [a] deep depression’ she refused to talk about. She explained how journaling and attending support groups helped her to heal but also highlighted the necessity of building a safe space for others. Alongside her contributions to The Silent Scream, this fuelled her idea for a ‘year with no fear’ in 2019, which she admitted nearly renamed a ‘year of perpetual fear’ as it was so challenging.

Facing her anxiety included muddy assault courses, a fire walk, and beginning Burlesque dance classes. Her overwhelming fear of people judging her made dancing in a showcase particularly frightening, however it opened her up to a world of opportunity – she even performed in the Edinburgh Fringe 2019. The message Brown has dedicated herself to spreading is the need to talk about mental health. By sharing her own story, she hopes to add to the ongoing fight against stigma and show people with similar experiences that they’re not alone, whilst also providing hope for those facing their own mental health issues.

Brown’s relationship with writing and honest discussion of these experiences are incredibly powerful. Her consistent ‘say it for you’ motto has focused her anxiety into positive and challenging activities that have enabled her to start living a happier life. I have found my own relationship with literature to have an equally positive effect.  

As an English Literature student, many of the books covered open questions about the world we live in: the institutions, the political and social landscapes, and human relationships. Although fictional novels contrast with Brown’s personal explorations, they offer the same encouragement. For example, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure examines the morality of marriage and criticises the exclusive nature of educational institutions. By reading, questioning, and talking about current social issues it focuses the anxious energy I have into something productive. While not explicitly talking about mental health, it’s enabled me to connect with other people, talk about important issues and feel engaged in the world around me, which is something that anxiety can take away.

Brown finished her talk by reading her own words, ‘by being open, we open the way for others’ – a vital idea which encapsulates the message of her ‘Time to Talk’ event.

Image shows a speech bubble made of crumpled pieces of paper.

Image: Volodymyr Hryshchenko via Unsplash