Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A short thought about the way we think

How many people in the UK have mental health problems? What makes the burden of mental illness tangible? How can we make it seem relevant to our lives?

About 10% of the population will suffer from depression during their lives. About 4% have bipolar disorder, just under 1% have schizophrenia. Add in insomnia, addiction, eating disorders and the behavioural problems associated with dementia , and mental illness starts to become the norm - not the exception.

The statistics rarely capture the reality. Throughout our communities there are pockets of expertise, borne not out of education or learning, but out of experience. The sharpest understanding of what it means to suffer, live and cope with mental illness comes from suffering, living and coping with it. The profoundest empathy of the struggles of others suffering, living and coping with mental illness comes from supporting someone you love with their own troubles.

Mental illness in all its forms is so common that these pockets of lived expertise must be everywhere. And yet we live in a society where the perception is that mental illness is the poor relative of physical health problems. Anyone whose life has been touched by these problems knows how profound, disruptive and real mental illness can be; and they also perhaps know how joyful it can be to emerge, for however long, from the shadow cast by psychiatric relapse.

The truths of mental illness are self-evident to all those who live with it. The succour of clinical expertise, loving families and good social support are the cornerstones of happy outcomes. And yet, a great many of the worst sufferers exist in social isolation, without friends, money or families, in communities that pretend they don't exist.

Marcus Trescothick was an international cricketer, whose depression undermined his ability to continue. When he left the England Cricket team during their tour of India in 2006, the team management told the press that he had left on account of personal problems. This wasn't entirely accurate. He left because of depression. He found the obfuscation unhelpful. When he found the strength to be open with people, he discovered a whole world of support, and understanding, both from people he worked with, and people he had never met.

No one wants to have to be an example to others when they are at their lowest ebb, but sometimes, some people find the strength to drive progress. In his own little way, Marcus achieved that: he enabled the people around him to learn about his problems, and to let them demonstrate to him that they care.

And this is the Catch 22 of mental illness. I imagine the majority of people would want to help, to be supportive if someone that they knew was going through a mental health crisis. But we do not know how to broach it. And for the person with the problem, being open about the issue is hard to do, when they are at their most vulnerable, and when they might feel some shame about their problems. You probably wouldn't hesitate to tell me if you'd had pneumonia, but you probably would if you'd been off work with depression.

Society cannot take a lead on changing the nature of its mental health dialogue - it just doesn't work like that. And we cannot place the burden of openness on the people suffering the most.

But perhaps, we can all through our language, and our approach, make it clear that life is tough, and sometimes, the manifestation of illness is psychiatric, and that we get that. Perhaps we can be the people who by being mindful of mental health problems in other people, are mindful and open about our own problems. We may not suffer in the same way as others, but we may also suffer worse. Openness is easier to start when you are feeling strong. Don't wait for your moment of weakness to wish that we were better at talking about mental health. 

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