Continuing my theme for this week of posts on mental health, I’m turning my attention to the stigma that society attaches to mental illnesses and those who suffer from them. To illustrate this point, I suffered this in a relatively modest way last year and am sharing this story with you.
I lost a friend. Nothing major in the great scheme of life, it happens all the time. But not as a result of someone’s ignorance. Briefly, I had been due to attend this friend’s annual house party weekend, but a family event was arranged for the same weekend and, given the distances involved, it wasn’t possible to do both. I decided, as I think most of us would do, to put family first and gave my apologies. Things were strained for a month or two until the weekend of the event itself, when I was treated to the worst that modern day friendships can bring: yes, I was unfriended and blocked on Facebook, thrown out of the WhatsApp group, and unfollowed and blocked on every social media platform through which we were connected. I was later told by another friend that my reason for absence had not been believed, coming as it did after my having to drop out of a previous gathering earlier last year due to illness. It was deemed by She Who Knew Everything that my real reason for not attending either event was that I was a depressive and was making excuses for not being able to attend these events. Firstly, that was untrue. Secondly, what qualifications did she have to make that judgement? Thirdly, how dare anyone judge someone on this basis, and choose to end a friendship as a result? And fourthly, even if she had been correct in her assumption, wouldn’t a true friend have attempted to help, rather than act the way she did? Sadly, a few of the others from our circle of friends chose to follow her lead – which my other friend described as ‘bullying.’
I’m telling you this not as a way of avenging what I feel as having been wronged – I wouldn’t use my blog for that, it’s too petty, and if anything were to be said it should be in private – but because what my ex-friend was doing was stigmatising people who have at some point suffered from a mental illness. Having suffered the debilitating effects of depression, people don’t need to be judged as being in some way inferior by those who don’t know any better. The fact that some others followed her approach speaks volumes for how entrenched such ignorance is in our society.
Let’s take another example. On Monday I reblogged a post from three years ago about the crass stupidity of Asda and Tesco in selling ‘mental health patient’ costumes for Halloween. I’ve since looked at their websites and am pleased to see that this year’s offerings don’t include anything so offensive. Sadly, though, such behaviour does still exist. It didn’t take me long in searching through the online fancy dress specialists to find similar examples still being offered for sale. This, for example:
Or maybe this:
What can possibly be funny, entertaining, or appropriate for public display about mocking an illness which causes so much damage and hurt, both to those who suffer from it and to those who love and care for them? Again, I see this as being caused by ignorance and the ease with which mental illness is stigmatised by society. Would someone think it right to offer a ‘cancer patient’ costume? Maybe, but they would very soon be told how offensive they were being. Partypackage Ltd and Wonderlandparty – consider yourselves named and shamed. When, if ever, are you likely to enter civilised society?
Is there an answer to this? In one word, the answer is ‘education.’ Better education, from an early age, about the effects of mental illness, its causes and treatments, and a basic sense of human decency and courtesy in dealing with sufferers, will of course help to improve the situation. But it is facile to say this and expect it somehow to happen by some process of osmosis. This will take a huge amount of time, effort and resources to encourage people out of behaviours which have been developed over centuries. Here in the UK funding – as I showed yesterday – is being diverted away from mental health treatments, so it would be naive in the extreme to expect an enormous amount of money to be found for the education programme which is so badly needed. The fact that a candidate for the US presidency can go public with mockery of people with disabilities – and people defend him – suggests that this isn’t only an issue in my country, either.
Many organisations are involved in providing education around mental health issues. Here in the UK they come together via the Mental Health Foundation. But they rely largely on donations, and are not as far as I’m aware in receipt of Government funding – if I’m wrong in that I’d be happy to put the record straight! Even so, resources are limited: there would still be many who would not be reached by such a message or are too entrenched in their views and prejudices to want to hear it.
Can I do anything about this? Can you? It’s very easy to assume that being little people inside a vast machine means that we can’t help. But we can. Take some time to learn more about this. Visit websites like the Mental Health Foundation or Time To Change and see what others are saying about their experiences. If you’re in the US you can click on the logo at the top of this site to get to the Stand Up site. Then share this knowledge with friends and family. As the saying goes, ‘great oaks from little acorns grow’ and we can all do our bit to increase awareness. After all, one in four of us is affected by a mental health problem at some point in our life, so it may be closer to home than you might think!