Saturday, 24 May 2014

It's Let's-Be-Nice-About-Mental-Health-for-a-Month Month!

May is Mental Health Awareness Month here in the UK, and this year Mental Health Awareness Week is from 23rd-30th May - or 12th-18th May if you believe other sources. I could be churlish and say it doesn't really matter much, because if you actually have mental health issues you don't generally wait until a disputed week in May to be 'aware' of it anyway, but it's jolly nice of people who've never had to battle with such things to take a week out of their lives to not think of us as merely attention-seeking burdens to society for a change. Just for a week, y'know? Kind of like a holiday.

Oh dear, that didn't go too well, did it? There I was, trying to be all positive about what is, after all, a very good and well-intentioned cause - and then at the end I had to go all grumpy-pants and spoil it. Sorry. Of course I am all for raising awareness of mental health. It's not something that's going to happen naturally, after all; people with no knowledge of it are afraid of it, and that fear translates as avoidance and stigmatization. This makes sufferers afraid of talking openly about it for fear of becoming even more stigmatized and isolated, and so the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling chicken-and-egg conundrum. By making people think about it and ask questions - and, even better, actually provide answers to some of them! - we can all help to make mental health a less scary subject in general. So of course it's a good thing. Bring it on.

My beef about it though, is this: what happens when May is over? Is that when everybody stops being 'aware' of mental health issues and goes back to thinking of it as the realm of maladjusted malingerers and attention-seeking misfits? "Right, we've done our bit - we were all sympathetic and enlightened about the problems those kind of people face for the whole month. But May's over now, right? We can all go back to normal again, yeah?" And unfortunately, 'normal' tends to be a far less sympathetic and enlightened attitude, if my experiences are anything to go by.

Large chunks of society who have never suffered from depression have very little concept of what it actually is. They think it means someone is depressed. They've been depressed at many points in their lives; there was that time their football team dropped off the league tables because they played so badly for a whole season, and then there was that other time when they got dumped by that person they really thought was The One... god yeah, they were really depressed then, for ages. But hey - they got over it. They picked themselves up and got on with their lives. That's how you get over depression!

Um... no. That's how you get over being depressed. Actual Clinical Depression, on the other hand, is something completely different. It's far more complicated than simply being in a period of deep misery - in fact, many people with clinical depression don't appear to be miserable for much of the time at all. They can laugh at jokes and everything, without it meaning that they're either 'cured' or 'just pretending' to have depression. Do you know how much hard work it is, behaving as wretched on the outside as you feel inside, all day every day? Jeez, even people who don't have depression wouldn't have the energy for that! It's just easier to smile when others smile and try to fit in when you're in the company of others, even when your heart is breaking inside. Don't let people see your pain, because it's not polite. Inconsiderate. Anti-social. You feel bad enough about yourself already, without collecting even more reasons to hate the fact you exist. And it still doesn't mean you don't shatter into a million pieces the moment you're alone.

When I had my breakdown at the age of twenty-five, I was diagnosed with two mental health disorders, both of them long-term conditions that you learn to manage and control in order to live a normal life, rather than things you are 'cured' of.  Technically I still 'have' both conditions, although I no longer let them rule my life the way they did before I had therapy for them. But as part of researching them in order to try and understand them - and consequently myself - better, it seems huge parts of society believe these disorders don't even exist. They're not 'real illnesses' at all, apparently - they're just something a bunch of weirdos like me are faking, either because we're pathetic drama queens desperately craving attention or lazy work-dodgers using it as a excuse to never do a proper job in our lives. This is why I next to never tell people I was ever diagnosed with these conditions - and especially not potential employers in job interviews (that's right,  job interviews - how's the 'lazy work-dodger' stereotype looking now, eh?) The idea of openly admitting that part of my history is terrifying to me, because I've come to think of it as shameful. Society thinks it's shameful - and I'm not gonna be the one who stands up and argues with society. Not all on my lonesome, that's for sure.

It's not just my particular conditions that seem to spark this kind of mindset. There are loads of people out there who, apparently, don't believe schizophrenia is real either. Or bipolar disorders. Or obsessive-compulsive disorders. They're all the products of fantasy, made up by 'bad' people to try and explain away their 'weird and unacceptable' behaviour as being 'not their fault,' those manipulative, deluded babies... As if they think we keep having the problems we do because they're just kind of fun to experience, y'know? If the people who think this way were to spend just one day living with some of the worst symptoms of the average mental illness (if you could even define 'average' in that sense) they would see in a heartbeat that it's not something anyone would choose to do - for attention, financial gain or anything else. And no, the disorders I was diagnosed with - and indeed the others I mentioned above - do NOT automatically equate with being violent or 'a potential danger to others' either. In fact, sufferers are way more inclined to hurt themselves before they would even think of laying a finger on anyone else.

But doesn't the fact that I felt a need to clarify that, in itself, say something about the typical attitude to mental health in our society? "It's okay folks - I may have had problems in the past, but honestly, it doesn't mean I'm ever going to try and kill you or anything..." Hollywood and the media doesn't exactly help us out there, of course. Films like 'Sybil' and 'Wonderland' perpetuate the idea that mental health patients are either one-person surrealist art performances or psychotic nutters we should all stay the hell away from, and while many of the murders and acts of violence committed on a daily basis by 'normal' people barely make the headlines, every such act committed by someone with a mental illness like schizophrenia will be national, front-page news (and even when you take that bias into account, it's still a rare occurrence.)

But maybe there's a reason for all of this; a reason that - sort of - makes sense.

The cold, hard truth is that mental illness, like many other illnesses, is an equal-opportunities affliction. No-one is immune to it, regardless of age, lifestyle, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or social class. That's a pretty scary thought. So... what if we could say there are - y'know, certain special qualifications that 'most' people with mental illnesses 'always' seem to have? Retro-fit them with this 'other'-ness that sets them apart from 'the rest' of society? Then all the 'normal' people can breathe a secret sigh of relief and tell themselves "Well, I'll never end up like that because I didn't have a dysfunctional childhood/have never been abused/there's nothing wrong with my brain, thanks very much." (Or of course there's my personal all-time favourite: "I'm a strong person emotionally." Because, as we're all told so often,  everyone who suffers with their mental health is really just a cry-baby wuss who can't handle tough old Real Life, aren't they?)

Now, I'm not denying that all of the above factors can and frequently do cause mental illnesses. Of course they do, and to claim otherwise would be stupid and insensitive. But they're far from being the only Willy Wonka golden tickets required. Even people who've had the most idyllic childhoods and perfectly functional outlook on life can succumb, without warning, to chronic, life-altering mental illnesses. It's a lottery, folks - and even if your number hasn't come up so far, you've still got a ticket just like everyone else, whether you want it or not. I can understand why people would prefer to not think about it like that. There's a kind of comfort in clinging to a list of exceptional circumstances that, as long as you don't fit within them, grants you automatic exemption from a potentially awful contract.

Problem is, that kind of thinking doesn't help anyone in the long run. Making mental illness something that only happens to 'certain types of people' certainly doesn't help those that already have them, because it only makes them feel more shunned by society for their condition and therefore less likely to ask for help - which means they suffer even more for far longer than they need to. And, if you want to be cold and cruel about it, that makes them even more of a 'drain on NHS resources' than they would have been if society was more accepting of their problems in the first place.

But here's the other thing; it also doesn't help all you 'normal' guys out there either. Oh sure, as long as you're fine you can keep reassuring yourselves that mental illness will 'never happen to you' because you're 'not the type.' But then if it ever does - and remember, the truth is you are not immune, any more than you are 'immune' to cancer or heart disease - well, you've gone and made it a lot harder for yourself to deal with now, haven't you? You're going to have to live with with your own prejudices about this illness you 'couldn't' get, as well as the prejudice of everyone around you. You'll probably feel angry with yourself  - you'll certainly feel like you've 'failed' somehow. So you'll be be dealing with those horribly negative feelings and all the others people with mental illness are made to feel every day, by strangers, people in authority and sometimes even friends and families.

So while Mental Health Awareness month is a lovely and noble idea, it's only going to serve any purpose if it makes permanent changes to the way mental health is perceived. This isn't something to focus on every time the calendar hits May, and then on June 1st just stash it all away with the bunting and the banners until the same time next year. It needs to be talked about all year round, as part of everyday conversation. If we are ever to understand it, it needs to become more 'normal', not less.

You wanna become more 'aware' of the truth about mental illness? Ask. Talk to people who've been through it, are going through it. As long as you don't behave like a total dick, they'll tell you. And y'know what? It doesn't even have to be in May.

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