Acknowledging Difference and Mental Health

It’s great that mental health issues are getting a lot of publicity at the moment, thanks to the Heads Together campaign and its royal endorsement. It’s also wonderful to hear Prince Harry talking openly about his mental health problems following his mother’s death. All of this is positive and deserves to be celebrated. However, we also need to hear the stories about people who struggle with mental illness and aren’t famous. Stories told by people whose mental health prevents them from going outside, let alone running a marathon.

It’s ironic that the right-wing, tabloid media praises some people for sharing their experiences of mental illness while, at the same time, castigating people with mental illness who claim benefits. If poor mental health prevents you from getting work, you can expect to be scrutinised – by the general public, as well as the media. When you go to a pub for the first time in several months, some people view it as proof that you are a scrounger who is playing the system; as though you choose to resign yourself to the poverty and humiliation of surviving on benefits, rather than getting a job which would give you some money and dignity. There is still a lot of ignorance surrounding mental health and we need to pay attention to the full spectrum of experiences.

Part of the problem is the reporting bias in mental health.

Some stories about mental health are more clickworthy than others. People like to read about a celebrity who goes off the rails, but they aren’t interested in ordinary people who spend their days lost in a fog of depression. There’s less spectacle involved. It’s bloody boring. Spectacle is also a factor in how different mental illnesses are represented – often in stereotypical, unrealistic ways. Soap characters with mental illness, for instance, tend to have public meltdowns and melodramatic plotlines. The majority of people with mental health problems don’t get sectioned or use violence against other people, but I guess showing reality is too banal: it involves a lot of sitting around as your thoughts play out an invisible battle royale.

The media also like stories of people overcoming their mental illness, but for some of us, recovery seems unlikely and active management is a more pertinent goal. In my own experience, for example, mental illness is chronic and fluctuates: bad episodes are punctuated by good episodes. My goal is to change the balance, so that good episodes are punctuated by bad episodes. Again, it’s wonderful to hear stories from people who have completely recovered from mental illness, but we also need stories from people who might never recover. I suppose that’s one of the aims of my blog – to show what life is like when you’re negotiating it with long-term mental health problems.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the reporting bias is that mental illness makes you think nobody wants to hear your story.

Depression and anxiety, in particular, generate a plethora of negative thoughts which convince you that you are worthless, useless, subhuman. You can’t ignore these thoughts, so you start to believe them and eventually, they seem to be part of you, an undeniable truth. Given this, it’s not surprising that many of us struggle to confide in friends and family, let alone broadcast our experiences to the world. Nobody should be ashamed to have mental health problems, but when they have a stranglehold on you, it’s almost inevitable that you feel shame.

There are also a lot of issues with political correctness which affect how stories about mental health are told – and whether they are told at all. For example, I once submitted a blog post to a mental health campaign about how when I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I felt relief because it explained my symptoms. After asking me to rewrite the post several times, with little guidance on what she was looking for, the person who contacted me said it wasn’t the kind of story they wanted to use, because other people don’t have the same experience. In my view, that’s exactly why such stories should be published – because there is no single experience of mental illness and assumptions need to be challenged.

If we are afraid to express ourselves – or to give platforms to others so they can express themselves – in case a differing viewpoint or experience causes offence, or challenges common perceptions, then the campaigns for mental health are doomed to be ineffective. We need to hear about a range of experiences. We need to hear provocative stories. Otherwise the debate is stymied before it has even gathered pace.

We need to stop censoring and invalidating our experiences of mental health problems.

Another facet of the reporting bias, especially self-reporting, is fear. People are afraid to talk freely and honestly about their mental health experiences. A lot of this fear is fear of being judged and discriminated against, which creates a vicious circle because discrimination won’t end unless we can discuss mental health issues without fear of being judged.

I was afraid to talk about my mental illness when I was younger, especially when I was employed. I thought people would view it as a weakness and use it as ammunition. Unfortunately, some people did. But when I started talking more, something amazing happened: other people told me they had similar experiences. I felt less isolated and more supported.

Since I have been blogging, some people have commented that I’m courageous for speaking out. I usually dismiss these comments, since I feel I don’t have anything to lose – I’m self-employed now and have reached the stage where I’m sick of being ashamed of my mental illness, so will tell anyone willing to listen. However, I have been considering the possibility that these people are right and it does take courage to speak out in any way you can. Perhaps by dismissing such compliments, I’m negating both my own courage and the courage of others who blog, vlog, talk and write about their mental health.

So yes, speaking out takes courage, but I believe the alternative is worse: a world in which people with mental illness are afraid to discuss the issues they face. A world where people experiencing mental health problems feel alone and unworthy of help and support.

Through sharing a wider range of stories about mental health, we move further away from that world.

Some people still inhabit the world I mentioned, where they consider their mental health problems taboo. When they see and hear stories about experiences of mental illness which are vastly different from their own, they feel more isolated. The majority of mental health stories in mainstream media feature people who have access to resources which others are denied: money, strong support networks, advocates. While these resources can’t counterbalance the pain of mental illness, they do make it easier to cope.

A lot of people are ignorant of the issues surrounding access to resources, because it’s rarely brought to their attention. I’m guilty of taking some of my own resources for granted, such as the security of living with my parents and the practical support they give me. I’m also guilty of being jealous of resources other people have which I have never had, such as a partner and money for private therapy. Even something as simple as transport is a major issue concerning mental health: learning to drive made a huge difference to my life, because it gave me access to treatments and I could visit my friends more. My anxiety prevents me from using public transport more than it prevents me from driving, so I would not have managed my mental health so well without being able to drive.

These issues need to be addressed more in mainstream media, so that we can provide more opportunities and access to a greater range of resources for people with mental health problems. We need to hear more stories from people with limited resources, so that others in similar situations don’t feel ignored.

Raising awareness of these issues will also prevent people from making well-meaning, or ignorant, but hurtful comments to people with mental illness. For example, people’s reactions when they learn I live with my parents: they joke about me being too old and too comfortable with the perks. The reality is, I can’t afford to move out because I have relied on benefits for years and when I have been in work, the jobs paid low wages and/or were part time. I also doubt I could cope with living alone, as much as I desire it, especially during bad episodes.

When I was on antidepressants, I relied on my mum to get my prescription for me. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to access medication. She also makes sure I eat when I’m depressed and hides the painkillers when I feel suicidal. Frankly, I dread to think what state I’d be in if I lived independently. I didn’t choose to have mental health problems, so it’s a bit difficult to nod along when someone tells me I could live in a flat share or to laugh when someone suggests the real reason I haven’t moved out is because I “have it too good.” If situations like mine were represented in the media more often, perhaps I wouldn’t be patronised or forced to explain myself when someone thinks they have the right to know why a woman in her 30s lives with her parents.

Raising awareness of issues surrounding mental health and humanising them through sharing individuals’ experiences would promote compassion and empathy.

A massive problem with reports on benefits is that they are either faceless or portray stereotypes. When benefits cuts are announced, news stories are illustrated with people who appear mentally and physically healthy, usually with multiple kids, who talk confidently and are coerced into making a comment which implies they are scroungers with no intention of supporting themselves. The bias is shocking, but not as shocking as the fact that many people don’t recognise it as bias.

A large proportion of the public believes what they are told by The Sun and The Daily Mail. They don’t realise that some people exist who don’t fit these stereotypes – people who battle against their mental illness and still can’t function, people who would love to work but can’t find a job offering the flexibility needed to work around fluctuations in their mental health, people who claim benefits not because it’s easier than working (hah!) but because they have no other choice. Acknowledging their existence could make a huge difference in itself. We need to tell these people’s stories.

People might acknowledge that mental illness affects people from all walks of life, but they don’t consider what this means. It means that people from poor backgrounds struggle to get adequate treatment via the NHS. It means that when someone’s benefits are stopped without warning, because someone unqualified in mental health has looked at a form and decided their illness doesn’t count as a disability, they can’t afford to eat or pay rent. It means that mental health problems can cause other problems, such as unemployment and isolation, creating a downward spiral which feels impossible to escape.

Perhaps if we told everyone about these experiences, as well as the more positive ones, people with mental health problems would be treated better – by both the government and the general public. There would be greater understanding and more kindness.

I want rich and successful people to tell their mental health stories, but I don’t want them to overshadow what the majority experience.

I want to show that mental illness need not prevent you from achieving your goals, but I also want to tell you that it’s okay if it does – it’s not your fault. Unfortunately, the effect of publicising stories from people who are either born into privilege or have achieved privilege through their career is that other experiences are excluded. This exclusion gives space for incorrect assumptions to arise: that if money doesn’t prevent mental illness, then poverty isn’t an issue which affects mental health and people who say their mental illness stops them from accomplishing goals are just making excuses. We need to address these assumptions by showing that they are untrue.

We need to make the invisible stories more visible. We need to acknowledge that while people with mental health problems can achieve great things, like running marathons and building incredibly successful careers, sometimes getting out of bed or taking a shower are huge achievements. We have started the conversation – now let’s broaden it and explore everyone’s experiences.

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