When you hear the words “mentally ill” what’s the first thing that pops into your head? I bet for most of you it wasn’t a friend, neighbour or colleague but someone violent, scary or strange, possibly in a straitjacket or shuffling around like a zombie because of medication. And yet at any given time 1 in 4 people are likely to suffer from some kind of mental illness. So why is there still such a stigma about it? Why the stereotypes and ignorance?
It’s a complex issue but I think that it may be partly due to unease that our ‘sense of self’ can so easily be altered. We humans live inside our heads and have a self-awareness that is unique. We are acutely aware of who we are and our place within a group, and yet mental illness can alter that ‘self’ very easily. This makes people uncomfortable. And when something makes people uncomfortable they often seek to distance themselves from it.
There’s also the problem that mental illness isn’t easily fixed the way a broken leg can be. The human mind is unbelievably complicated and we are still only beginning to understand how it works. A common misconception about mental illness is that the sufferer should just snap out of it, switch it off, that they’re seeking attention. But who would dream of saying such things to someone with diabetes or kidney disease? Physical illness attracts sympathy; mental illness often merely attracts impatience and scorn, as though it is a sign of weakness. Anti-depressants are often demonised as being addictive and handed out far too easily by doctors. But strangely few people would make the same criticisms about painkillers, which are often available over the counter instead of by prescription.
The media is also partly responsible for the ignorance and stereotypes surrounding mental illness. I can think of very few films or programmes where a person with mental illness is portrayed sympathetically. It’s all too common to have the violent murderer, the weird loner or the crazy kidnapper. It’s not just fictional media of course, the news media is just as bad. A common incidence is when a violent or terrible crime has been committed (parents killing children for example) and the journalists will ask “Were they depressed?”, “Was there any history of mental illness?”. Now, of course people with mental illness commit crimes. People without mental illness also commit crimes. But the way that the media glibly imply that only someone who is mentally ill could do such a thing infuriates me. I’ve been mentally ill for most of my life and the most criminal thing I’ve ever done is accidentally run a red light.
Talking to friends and family about mental illness is difficult. Some will be sympathetic and understanding; some will be sympathetic but won’t understand. And of course there are those who withdraw from you as a result. Membership of the matter group isn’t always due to ignorance either, I lost a very close and trusted friend when I had PND after the birth of my daughter. This friend had also had PND previously but couldn’t cope with me struggling for so long and withdrew from me.
It takes a lot of courage to be open about mental illness. I don’t mean online – I’m very open about my problems here. But I tend to hide it as much as I can from people I know in real life. I don’t want them to look at me differently; I don’t want them to see me as a diagnosis first and a person second. I don’t want to lose any more friends. And yet there are those who know and are extremely supportive. My husband, my mother and sister, 3 friends whom I can talk to honestly about absolutely anything and know that they will still be there.
The more open we are about mental illness the less stigma there will be. But in order to be open we must run the gauntlet of that stigma, of being branded as ‘other’. It’s a difficult cycle to break but I am trying – I am starting to be more open about my problems and so far it’s been ok. No-one’s run away screaming yet. 😉
(This post was inspired by the Time To Change campaign).