Monday August 18, 2014
It feels right to speak from my heart. What is our own mental heatlh if not what we deeply and prooundly feel in ourselves, in our heart of hearts? And what a solitary place that is.
Mental health has been in the news so much recently, from talk about its continuing stigma to shocked reverberations about Robin William's suicide. Nick Clegg only a few weeks ago announced that he wants us to be able to understand mental health as well as we undersand physical health and for us to be able to talk about, analyse and treate depression just as we treat diabetes.
It feels like there is a long way to go to get there when there is still such stigma surrounding mental illness. How many of us gloss over what we really feel, or don't talk about the struggles of a family member? Clearly a lot of us still feel that admitting to being less than ok is a bit of a taboo subject.
One in four of us have some form of mental illness at some point in our lives. That's you, me, someone in our family, a colleague, a neighbur, a close friend, a friend of our children. Many of us guard that information closely - so clearly mental health is something we don't feel we can talk about as easily as cancer, kidney failure or hip replacement.
But why? Perhaps the problem is that mental illness is perceived as a weakness which affects all of how we are able to be. When we have a prosthetic limb, we know that our functioning in some aspects of our life will be limited, but in others perfectly normal. If we suffer from migraines, we may be totally incapacitated for a day or two and otherwise funtion as usual. We might do well to bear in mind that we have to avoid triggers like chocolate and red wine. Mightn't mental ill health often be the same? If we suffer from stress or anxiety, we will need to learn what sparks those out of control feelings for us and find ways of managing them. If we have a depressive illness, we will need to build in good support strategies for the times we can't lift our own mood. Perhpas medication will play a part in our treatment or recovery. And yes, mental illness does sometimes take over our lives, but then physical illnesses can do the same.
Being mentally unwell is a strange place to be - it's often contained within us and we can't touch it or see it. It can make us feel very isolated becuase what's going on on the outside may not reflect what's going on in the inside. And we don't admit to what we feel because we don't others to see us or our loved ones as weak or flawed or less able to function.
When MP John Woodcock came out about his own depression last year, he talked of the number of men in his constituency who had come up to him afterwards and told him how they had been keeping quiet their own struggles because of a culture where men get on and shrug stuff off. For men, amongst whom talking about their feelings often has little currency, admitting to needing help is counter-cultural and even seen as not being properly masculine. Woodcock talked of the great strength he had gained from colleagues who had talked about their depression and how that had inspired him to be open about his own depression.
Much compassion has been expressed for Robin Williams, who took his own life so tragically recently. Perhpas it's time to do things differently and extend that compassion to ourselves and those around us and talk and listen a little more about how we feel. That way we might help to do away with some of the misconceptions and cruel isolation of mental ill health.