Today is World Mental Health Day, the day of the year where mental health organisations shout the loudest about the fact that mental health effects all of us and therefore deserves to be given it’s own 24 hour platform. This is clearly a good thing and certainly helps to spread the message that mental health is something worthy of conversation on a global scale, but is one day enough? Obviously not…
The stigma surrounding mental health is well documented, very real, and has a direct effect on the attitudes of the general populace towards those who are affected by the myriad of conditions lumped under this umbrella. Many people are fearful of the term, wary of those who are stamped with the label and unsure how to react to those open enough to explain they are diagnosed depressives or sufferers of PTSD, OCD, Bi-Polar or the hundreds of other conditions our brains can offer. Those diagnosed are also wary of “admitting” their condition for fear of judgement by others. It is this situation of fear and misunderstanding that needs to be remedied if ‘mental health’ is to truly lose it’s ‘Dickensian sanatorium’ image.
It is through lack of real understanding of these conditions that allows this fear to remain. Having a number of well-known public figures, such as Stephen Fry, Freddie Flintoff and Ruby Wax ‘coming out’ about their conditions is one effective way of lessening the fear (i.e. ‘Stephen Fry seems like a lovely chap – maybe people who are bi-polar aren’t as crazy as I thought after all!’) but if you have never experienced depression, for instance, it’s difficult to understand the truly devastating and debilitating effects it can have on an individual. All too often we hear cases where people with depression are told to cheer up or, even worse, man up. ‘Have a pint, mate, watch telly. Have you seen the latest episode of Live At The Apollo? That should cheer you up.’ It’s not a case of ‘cheering up’. It’s never a case of ‘cheering up’, and it’s most certainly never a case of ‘manning up’.
Imagine one day you broke your leg, but due to the stigma surrounding leg injuries, you were too scared or ashamed to talk to anyone about it. Instead you suffer the pain on your own, waiting for it to heal. That, of course, would be ridiculous. We all know that a broken leg needs to be treated for it to heal properly, and that the agony of a broken limb is far too much for one person to suffer without outside help.
Depression is no different. Except that it is, isn’t it? Your boss isn’t going to think any less of you, as both an individual and as an employee, if you break your leg. Your partner or mates aren’t going to avoid the subject if you’re sitting there with your leg hanging off. They would be the first to shove you in the car and drive you to a hospital. But when it comes to mental health, these things are all a consideration. You don’t want your mates to treat you differently once you are officially ‘diagnosed’, or want your boss thinking you’re less able to do your job, so you don’t talk about it. More often than not, friends, family and colleagues turn out to be extremely receptive and sympathetic, but the fear of judgment still remains. It is this stigma that needs to be removed in order for mental health to be regarded as simply an illness of the brain, no different to an illness of the body. Any one of us, regardless of age, socio-economic status or gender, can experience a mental health condition at some point in our lives. It’s not ‘them’ and ‘us’, it’s ‘we’.
Even writing this article is difficult because so many of the phrases that come to mind are actually inaccurate. The word “admit” is strongly linked to shame, it’s like a dirty secret, something you confess to; so why do we “admit” to having a mental health issue yet we only “explain” we’ve broken our leg?
Explaining you have, or might have, depression (or another mental health issue) and seeking help is, as a result, often an incredibly brave thing to do. The process of firstly realising something’s not right, then coming to terms with that yourself, approaching a friend, partner or GP, talking about it and accepting help can be a very difficult, stressful and exhausting experience. It is not a sign of weakness and certainly has no correlation to the size of your balls. It is simply an illness that can be treated, and should be seen as such.
One of our frustrations is the idea that we should simply tell the general public it happens to lots of people, quote the stat that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year and so on and so forth. Our experience is most people think that’s interesting but never think it might be them who could be that 1 in 4, it’s always someone else. We’ve got to be more innovative than that if we’re to change mindsets.
Ridding mental health of it’s stigma is not an easy task, but at CALM we are working on it, as are many other great organisations, one step at a time; and whilst having an annual day to highlight the issue is a good thing, keeping the conversation going all year round is the real challenge… Want to help us? Join the campaign…