Mental health is inextricably linked to physical health and a vital component of overall wellbeing. You could say it’s like the seaside and sunscreen. Ok, that might not be the best example, but you catch my drift. Yet, as critical as it is, the conversations about mental health have long been stifled into low whispers, and confined to the most trusted confidants. Why? The stigma. Over time, unsound mental health has become so stigmatised that all you have to do is mention the term for people to start looking down and shuffling their feet in acute discomfort.
Mental health as a taboo topic has been a social construct perpetuated through centuries of human history. From what seems like the beginning of time, people who have suffered with mental issues have been forced to bottle them up and somehow deal it with themselves, that is, unless they wanted to be completely ostracized and socially excluded. In many countries, persons who have mental health challenges have been labelled casually as ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’, while in others, their very lives are threatened as bystanders attribute the behavioural patterns they exhibit to some supernatural source.
As with many things, such actions are driven by fear- a fear of things little understood.
Fortunately, nowadays, at least in some parts of the world, it seems that real and open conversations around mental health are finally happening. Many seem to be at last coming to grips with the fact that mental illnesses are induced in much the same way as physical illnesses are, in the sense that external forces and lifestyle choices will of course come into play, but so too do hereditary predispositions and other factors that individuals have little control over.
The fundamental truth is that no one makes a conscious decision to be mentally ill, just as no one opts to be physically ill. The more we are able to find similarities between mental and physical health, the more we will be able to knock down the walls of stigma and ignorance that envelope the subject and create a more empathetic, caring society, willing to help those in need of it.
The fact that there is a whole week dedicated in the UK, and an entire month in the US, to mental health awareness, is heartening but also indicates that there is lots more education to do to really address the issues being faced. For a long time, we seemed to only hear mental health being widely discussed in the news in a frighteningly negative light, invariably as efforts are made to link mental illness and the occurrence of violent crimes. Despite being roundly debunked by mental health experts, these misconceptions and stereotypes continue to be disseminated by the media. And the worst part? Lots of people soak in this rhetoric and believe these unsubstantiated claims without doing any further research of their own. In so doing, the ugly beast of stigma is fed.
But what if the tone of the conversation shifted to a more relatable one, to show how on an individual basis, mental health is affected in a multitude of ways, with the effects of mental health issues being manifested in a whole gamut of behaviours? In other words, can we normalise mental health issues, so that they become less intimidating to think and talk about?
This is exactly what’s being done around the world increasingly, especially during this month of May. Celebrities and other popular public figures are coming forward to speak about experiences that they have had in their lives which affected, even temporarily, their mental wellbeing. Popular personalities like Demi Lovato, Halle Berry, Ryan Reynolds and Prince Harry have spoken publicly about their personal experiences, with the aim of illustrating how pervasive the problem is and encouraging people to seek help. Their examples do much to highlight the fact that mental health issues know no class, creed nor colour, as it were, and that it can take hold of individuals in an instance; even more importantly perhaps, the take away lesson that should be had is that, with the proper help, persons with mental health issues can, and frequently do, recover.
The theme of this year’s mental health awareness month in the US also goes a long way to normalise mental health issues by placing emphasis on behaviours that many would not typically associate with mental health. The campaign focuses on ‘Risky Business’ and 6 things which can be classed as such and which relate to mental health: marijuana use, sex, prescription drug abuse, internet addiction, compulsive buying and exercise extremes.
With studies showing that 1 in 4 people in the UK, and 1 in 5 people in the US, are suffering from poor mental health each year, this discussion is of paramount importance. To further contextualise the problem, the World Health Organisation estimates that 450 million people worldwide have a mental illness and further reports that 1 in 4 people worldwide will experience mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.
It is also worth noting that, although the number of mental illness cases reported annually may not be significantly increasing, evidence suggests that individual’s ability to cope with the mental issues they have is worsening, with the incidences of people engaging in self-harm or having suicidal thoughts on the rise.
Even more frightening is that children are by no means immune to this problem. In fact, recent studies show that within four years (2010 to 2014), the number of children going to hospitals’ emergency departments with psychiatric conditions has more than doubled (from 8,358 to 17,278).
To do my bit in promoting the dialogue about mental health issues, I’ll be doing a series of articles on the subject for the remainder of the month. Join me in the conversation by following the series and leaving your comments below. Together, we can help make a difference.