Mind over Marathon reveals an important truth about the stigma of mental illness

"The judgement you fear from others can often be something you’re guilty of, too," writes Hannah Shaddock

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I thought the end – as they crossed the finish line, victorious, overwhelmed, proud – would get me. But in fact I managed just three minutes of the first episode of Mind over Marathon – the BBC1 two-parter following people attempting to overcome mental illness through the simple act of running – before the tears came.

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Severe mental illness can be an excruciating cross to bear that no one who hasn’t been through it can fully understand. And it is often in the everyday, the mundane, that the struggle is hardest; getting out of bed, leaving the house, going to the supermarket, catching a train – even, as with panic disorders, breathing. You see that in the opening of the programme, as Steve – who has post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety – visibly shakes with fear as he prepares to travel to the training centre to meet the other would-be runners.

He makes it, as do the other nine participants in the programme, and for many of them that is itself a victory; it’s also a stark reminder that someone doesn’t have to be unable to function to be suffering. The varied group of aspiring runners look a bit nervous, but pretty ordinary; they perfectly illustrate that mental ill-health is not typical. It can happen to anyone, however intelligent or funny or resilient, and however well and high functioning they seem on the surface. Rhian, who lost her son and her husband just five days apart, appears infinitely capable – but sometimes she struggles simply to feed herself, and can’t run alone because her anxiety is so overwhelming.

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And that’s why I cried – because I know some of what she and the other runners were feeling.

It was because I was watching people speaking openly and publicly about life with mental illness, and sharing feelings and thoughts that I have had. What people often don’t realise when they talk about the “stigma” surrounding mental illness is that it doesn’t always come from other people – as someone with mental health problems, the judgement you fear from others can often be something you’re guilty of, too, which only exacerbates your own illness. In the programme, Shereece, who has depression, says she’s disappointed that she can’t cheer herself up, and is reluctant to ask for help. 

I know exactly how pervasive this mindset is. I’ve had severe anxiety for the best part of a decade; I managed to live with it by myself – without telling anyone – for five years, until it became too much and I had a breakdown. I was forced to talk about it, and it was a revelation; I found huge encouragement in knowing that other people felt the same way I did, and that there were things I could do to cope with it.

I’ve had therapy or counselling three times, most recently earlier this year. I’d probably say I’m recovering rather than recovered, but my anxiety is as manageable as it’s ever been. I exercise (yes, I run a bit), I eat (relatively) well, I try to be kind to myself. But it’s still only recently – at the age of 25 – that I’ve been able to accept that my anxiety is not a character flaw. It’s not my fault that I developed it; it’s not my fault that sometimes I can’t cope with it, and not coping doesn’t make me weak.

It also doesn’t make someone weak if they don’t feel able to speak out about their difficulties. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to keep your health – mental or otherwise – private. But for me, my recovery began with talking about what I was feeling. I’ve found huge relief in knowing I can talk about my anxiety to my friends, my family, my boyfriend – and everyone deserves that.

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I also think everyone deserves to see their own lives, their own struggles, depicted and spoken about openly, to feel part of a community. The power of feeling understood, and that you aren’t alone, can’t be underestimated. As Mind over Marathon runner Claudia, who has OCD, says, if she had known when she was suffering that someone else was out there suffering in the same way it would have changed her life. 

So, despite the tears, that was one of the huge comforts of Mind over Marathon, for me and I’m sure other viewers who could easily empathise with the bold, brave runners. But there’s reassurance, too, for those with less experience of mental illness – the programme shows that it’s actually quite easy to ease the burden of someone who is suffering. Listening, and trying to understand, is the first step. If you have a friend or loved one who is struggling, be sensitive, be empathetic; do not assume, do not pressurise. Make it clear that you are not going anywhere, that you love them, and that they are completely normal – they just might need a little bit of help to feel it again.

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Mind over Marathon concludes tonight at 9pm on BBC1