The statistics on mental health are pretty damning – 1 in 4 of us suffers from a mental health condition. I remember reading something over 10 years ago the 1 in 3 statistic for cancer and equating it to my immediate family – either me, my mum or my dad was going to get cancer. The cancer count is now 2 out of 3 for us. And the mental health count is worse. I don’t present these statistics for sympathy because, whether you’re dealing with cancer or chronic anxiety, sympathy is fairly useless. Much more important is empathy and whilst we all know someone that’s died of cancer, until recently we may not have known someone with a mental illness – and how can we possibly be empathetic if we don’t know about it? It’s illogical.
To continue with the analogy sometimes cancer is logical (smoking = lung cancer, sunbeds = skin cancer) but a lot of the time its not (blood cancer anyone?!). Mental illnesses are very similar in this way – abuse victims almost always suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression often follows grief. But sometimes the logic fails – a new mother of a much wanted baby can be gripped by post-natal depression and a generally confident, successful person can find themselves racked by anxiety so suffocating they’re housebound for months at a time.
There are many other similarities of course, both are illnesses – the term condition is banded about, possibly with good intentions, but depression is a mental illness, borderline personality disorder is a mental illness, obsessive compulsive disorder is an illness. Both cancer and mental illness ruin lives, test relationships, challenge a persons ability to work and ultimately can lead to premature death. But there is one overwhelming difference between cancer and mental illness – SHAME.
Thankfully enough is understood about the causes of a lot of cancers that most people no longer feel ashamed by their diagnosis. Even if a lifestyle choice may have contributed to your cancer we all know that one person that smoked 60 a day for 40 years and didn’t get lung cancer (if you don’t know them already, it was my dad, so now you do) that helps us rationalise that cancer was always going to get us whatever choices we made. But a mental illness diagnosis is weighted with shame and introspection – the questions you ask of yourself are almost immediate: why have I got something wrong with the way my brain works? Why can’t I cope with things better? What did I do to deserve the abuse? Why can’t I just get over it? What do i have to be anxious about? Why are there voices in my head and no one else?
Thanks to increased advocacy around mental illness, those of us living with it now know that we aren’t alone and this is a start. But the weight of shame isn’t alleviated by knowing other people feel as wretched as you. Misery may love company but it’s still just more people that are miserable. The only thing that can ever lift the burden of feeling like you’re failing at the hands of your own mind every day is by removing the mark of disgrace that is associated with mental illness. We talk about removing the stigma but that is the literal definition of stigma – a mark of disgrace, shame or dishonour. It sounds really cruel when it’s broken down like that doesn’t it? Well, it is cruel. It’s a cruel attitude to have towards ourselves and it’s a cruel attitude to have towards others and until everyone takes responsibility for calling bullshit on it, it will continue to punish those that need our empathy. And, it really is empathy that makes the difference, trust me on this one.
So what can you do? Well here’s a starter for 10:
- Don’t roll your eyes if a co-worker is “off with stress”. Stress is a symptom and is often indicative of a more serious mental illness, think about how you would feel if it was a loved one that needed to take time off work for the same reason.
- Don’t hide from people’s mental illness if they’ve disclosed it to you personally or publicly – if I broke my leg you’d ask me how my leg was, I’m very open that I suffer from anxiety and depression- so ask me how that is if you want.
- Think about how your words sound to a person with a mental illness. Don’t say “you’ll be fine” or “you just need to relax” or “just take some medication” – say “I’m going to help you feel better – maybe going to the doctor or taking time out would help.”
- If you don’t understand someones or your own mental illness – admit it. Saying to someone that has disclosed to you that you don’t get it but you want to understand and help is a really big deal to that person. If you don’t understand your own mental health – ask someone that might. That can be a friend, the Samaritans, specialist charities or your doctor.
- Don’t belittle mental illness in your everyday language. Don’t call someone ‘mental’, don’t refer to people’s medication as ‘happy pills’, don’t joke about being sectioned or having a breakdown. We have a choice in the words we use to describe ourselves, others and the world around us. Similarly, language shapes how we see the world. The words we choose and the meanings we attach to them influence our feelings, attitudes and beliefs. Your influence stretches further than you think thanks to social media and especially if you’re raising children.
- If you are worried about someone elses mental health speak to someone about it – in the first instance their family or friends, but there are numerous resources available from The Samaritans, MIND, MQ and other organisations that can offer guidance.
- And the biggy – just BE KIND. Mental health is as important as physical health. Hopefully you don’t judge someone with cancer, so don’t judge someone with a mental illness.
They’re just a few things that can change how we all think about mental health, if you do these things and share this practice with others, before you know it we won’t remember a time when mental illness was something to be ashamed of.
I can’t think of anything more empathetic than that.