Big city, big dreams, big mental health problems

In a city like London where people go to make it big it seems that women in media are being hit harder than ever before

“It literally felt like someone had hit me with a car. I didn’t know what the f*** was going on”. Sitting across from me, sipping on a latte was Emily*, a successful production assistant. She had just told me about a job she had completed on a high-profile reality show, just one of the many successful projects she has completed working on prime-time television. On the outside, she seems completely put together. Small in height, but large in personality. She’s a fierce woman who knows where she wants to be on the career ladder and will stop at nothing to get there. Even if that risks her mental health and leaves her with crippling panic attacks.

Government research has found that two million Londoners will experience ill mental health every year and that London has a lower than average rate of life satisfaction. Out of these two million, women in full-time employment are twice as likely to suffer from a mental health issue. People from across the globe, not just the country, flock to the big city in the hope of achieving their dreams and high levels of life satisfaction. In fact, it has been estimated by the Office for National Statistics that 10.66 million people are currently living in the capital in 2018. Yet it appears that when they get here all they are met with is high-pressure jobs and the stress that comes with them. And when you’re a woman ruthlessly fighting the gender pay gap on-top of the stress that comes with work, it’s not hard to realise how the cracks begin to form.

But what is it about London that is causing such low levels of satisfaction and shocking mental illness statistics?  Professor of mental health and practice innovation at London South Bank University Sally Hardy believes it’s all in the make-up of London: “if you look at the makeup of London you’re living in a highly pressurised society and system… London is very pressurised, space is very limited, and I think it was Robin Williams that said you’re never so alone when you’re in a crowd”.

Emily’s panic attacks began in her second year at university after suffering a break-up. She admitted that she dealt with them alone, only telling people what was going on after she had been drinking. She was desperate to suppress thoughts and emotions that had been brought up during a particularly horrific counseling session where she projectile vomited into a bin, ran away, and never went back. She was adamant that everything was fine after she had graduated university and escaped to London to begin her career. She loved the London life until she began working on high-profile shows. “I was working 6-day weeks like minimum 12 hours maximum 16 hours a day, didn’t get rest, didn’t really get time to slow down, and that’s when the panic attacks came back. Like with full f***ing force”.

A 2016 study published by The Guardian showed that on average 3.21% of London’s adults suffered from at least one panic attack per week. Undoubtedly this shows a very severe issue regarding London’s mental well-being, however Professor Hardy believes that the severity of the issue is nationwide: “I think that we’ve been brought up in England to have a work ethic, and I think that there is also this culture of if you put more effort in you get more back. A more Eastern Philosophy is [that] you work from rest you don’t rest from work and I think that we in the Western world have got very wrapped up with do more means do better”.

The ‘do more means do better’ mentality that surrounds the UK, and completely clouds over London, has resulted in feelings of utter despair towards ourselves. While working on her latest project Emily admits: “I cried a lot on that show. Like a lot a lot. But it would make me feel like I was literally worthless, I didn’t even feel f***ing human anymore. I just felt like a robot doing my work, going home, sleeping, rinse and repeat. Most times I didn’t even get time to rinse”.

Feeling worthless and under-appreciated is highly common when you’re a woman working in a high-pressure media job. 23-year-old journalist Amy McDonnell can attest to that: “The job I was in (and still am) made me feel underappreciated, uninspired and I was in a serious rut. I noticed that Fridays didn’t excite me anymore, instead, I was filled with intense anxiety. It was so bad that I would sit and stare at my screen with no idea how to do anything because I could physically feel the cortisol (the hormone released to regulate stress) in my body”.

In the 21stcentury, and especially within big cities like London, we feel the need to constantly be busy. There are too many people to compete with in terms of jobs and even in terms of space. In London, there is the real fear that if you stop, even just for a second, then there will be a hundred more-eager people just like you willing to fill your position. And when you’re a woman working in an industry where 91% of companies are paying men more than women the pressure to sustain a job increase. Amy has felt this very feeling since she began to work in London: “You’re constantly surrounded by people doing better than you and if you haven’t gotten out of the habit of comparing yourself to others then it can be difficult not to be negatively affected by it”.

With two million Londoners suffering from mental health-related illnesses every year but only 25% of them being treated, the remaining 75% are turning to alternative help methods. In the past year, there has been a rise in self-care, self-love, and self-help movements. We are all being encouraged to take the time out of our day to care for ourselves properly and appreciate the life we have been given. Undoubtedly the rise in this practice is helping people to take time out of their constantly busy schedules and think about themselves. However, for people already suffering from ill mental health is this really the right practice for them? “I think there’s a risk of saying mental health problems [you] need to self-care for those, because that then stops people seeking treatment quickly enough [and] then people end up in a crisis” is Professor Hardy’s view on things.

It seems that education is key. For centuries London has had the same fast-paced environment. It has, and perhaps always will be, seen as the place to go to achieve your dreams. We may not be able to change this mentality, but we can change our own. With companies beginning to release their gender pay gaps, and women constantly fighting against misogyny perhaps their mental health will show signs of improvement soon. The stigma surrounding mental health is eroding, and the more we talk about it the easier it becomes to deal with. Despite suffering from panic attacks for the past five years Emily is only now actively seeking help. “I know that London is not where I want to end up for the rest of my life because it is such an intense environment I don’t think I would be able to physically and mentally cope with that for my entire life and that’s fine. I’m accepting that sometimes London isn’t for everyone. It’s just it’s where I need to be right now for my career so I’m going to get the help that I want and need”.

As Professor Hardy tells her students: “when you’re on an airplane they say put your oxygen mask on first before you help anyone else… don’t forget you’ve got to look after yourself and put your oxygen mask on first”.

*Name has been changed

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