Sean Fletcher, journalist, radio and TV presenter, talks with us about OCD, parenting, and looking after your mental health.
Your son, Reuben, has been suffering badly from OCD and you have both been talking about it publicly with the Heads Together campaign. What made you both decide to speak about your experiences?
It was a combination of a chance meeting with Prince William, and some bold words from Reuben.
'If I'd heard someone talking about OCD when I was younger I'd have realised that I'm not weird', this is what Reuben told me when I asked him if he wanted to be interviewed for Bryony Gordon’s MadWorldPodcast. He really wanted to pass on what he's learnt since having debilitating intrusive thoughts. OCD has affected him so much he missed almost a year of school. Put simply, he's battling his worst nightmare in his head 24/7 which has prevented him doing everyday things in life.
Since the MadWorldPodcast was broadcast, we've learnt there are many others suffering in the same way.
Seeing Reuben so driven to tell his peers that they don't have to suffer in silence, made me realise I could do the same for parents of children with mental health issues. For the best part of a year my wife and I had kept Reuben's OCD to ourselves. We were like many parents, protecting our child and making excuses for any unusual behaviour.
That was until I had an unexpected meeting with Prince William.
I hadn't realised I was going to be introduced to him at the Heads Together London Marathon launch, so when he asked me why I was running, I found myself blurting out 'my son has OCD'. It was the first time I'd talked openly about it. It immediately felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Since then I've been a lot more open about our experiences, and like Reuben I'd like to pass on the knowledge I've gained to help others.
OCD, in particular, is a widely misunderstood and misrepresented illness. Have you found it difficult to deal with people’s misconceptions, and to educate them about mental illness?
A few years ago I had no idea what OCD was. I'd occasionally cracked the stereotypical joke about people who like to be tidy 'being OCD'. Reuben has admitted to doing the same. So we can't blame anyone for misunderstanding the condition. But that's no excuse for not becoming more aware of an illness that is completely misrepresented in society. So charities like YoungMinds, and people like Reuben and I, have a lot of work to do to raise awareness.
What would you like people to know about OCD?
Many of us are obsessive about something. I'm a 'checker', so I tend to double check I've locked the front door when I go out. I find I can get a little bit anxious if I don't. Some people will relate to that. Others will be obsessive about different things or have their own rituals or habits. But walking back to the front door to check its locked doesn't really affect my life, so it's not a disorder for me.
When this cycle of obsessions and compulsions stop you going about your daily life, that's when it becomes obsessive compulsive disorder. It could be anything from disruptive to debilitating, and it could only affect you at certain times in your life, for example when you're stressed. But it can be treated, and the sooner you get help the more likely you are to be able to cope with it.
Do you have any advice for parents who are worried about their children’s emotional wellbeing as they grow up?
Every child is different so any advice I give is very general. But if you think your child is struggling, stressed, lifeless, moody or perhaps doesn't want to do the things they used to enjoy, it's worth having a conversation with them about how they feel. The difficulty is, all those things are characteristics in teenagers. So you have to try to work out what's normal and what's not. If you're worried you should seek advice.
If your child is diagnosed with a mental health problem, you may find it hard to talk about. But the best thing to do is break any stigma making you keep it in. Since we’ve told our friends and family, many people we know - and even more we don't - have shared their mental health experiences with us. Breaking the stigma makes it so much easier.
It’s really important that we talk about the wellbeing of parents as well as their children, of course. How do you look after your own mental health, and where do you seek support when you need it?
OCD is a bully. Reuben is beating the bully most days now, but on the most difficult days the bully managed to drag the whole family into arguments and distressing situations. Before we knew it my wife and I found our own mental wellbeing in jeopardy.
I can't say I get it right, but I certainly find ring-fencing some time to do some exercise during the week a great help. I run, and spending an hour alone listening to music and doing exercise is a time to clear my mind.
What would you like to see change about mental health by the time your children are your age?
Attitudes towards mental health need to change radically. But we're heading in the right direction. I’ve been encouraged by Reuben’s group of friends at school who have been brilliant and deal with his OCD better than any adult has. They aren't fazed by the way the OCD has affected Reuben, and ask straight questions to understand what he's going through. It’s incredibly positive to see because they're the future. They'll be voting in 4 years, and in 30 years they could be influencing government policy towards mental health provision.
Whatever they're doing, I hope Reuben and his friends will be living in a country with a much better understanding of mental health, where mental and physical wellbeing are, understood, funded and catered for equally.