Friday, 3 February 2012

Time to Change and Rethink

As I mentioned in the comments at the bottom of my last blog, I was intending to only post one new article a month this year for two reasons... Firstly, it means I feel less pressured to write something new and secondly it gives people plenty of time to read each article. However, this month I thought I'd make an exception for a very special reason...

The Time to Change campaign to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness has been running for four years here in the UK, but this year is the first year that it has appeared on British television and radio and it happens to be Mental Health Awareness Week now.

As you will see from the link, there are opportunities to get involved in a variety of ways, from simply making a pledge to fight the stigma and making a comment to setting up an event to raise awareness on mental health issues.

Fighting the stigma has always been a problem for the mentally ill - we can hardly challenge society in the same way as some other campaigners have to win their fight against prejudice by going on hunger strike or chaining ourselves to railings as it's not likely to help our cause. Protest marches could be done but again the history of protest marches for worthy causes is not without its share of problems including breaking out into violent battles. So personally I'm none too keen.

Many of us, like myself, choose to remain anonymous. My reasons are partly due to the stigma, partly to keep mental health issues separate from the rest of my life as it doesn't belong in those and partly to protect others I know who have suffered or are suffering mental health difficulties.

I have dreamt of a day when anonymity won't be necessary to protect the vulnerable, but sadly I doubt it will happen in my lifetime or within the lifespan of the next generation. This might sound rather grim, but the fact that the 'Time to Change' campaign has reached television and radio now means that the fight against the stigma is no longer a distant glimmer of hope - it's a beacon, burning brightly and one that is unlikely to ever be extinguished.

It heralds all manner of opportunities to illustrate the positive stories of how people have got better; how even severe illnesses have better treatments compared to 50 years ago so that a better quality of life can be achieved. It provides us with the the chance to update and educate everyone with the amazing achievements of extraordinary people living average lives who have no choice but to live with a mental health disability all their lives.

We can show that 'men in white' coats and lobotomies are a thing of the past and that even ECT (electro convulsive therapy or electric shock treatment) is much improved from its random and often barbaric beginnings.

Perhaps most significantly it means that it will no longer just be extreme cases of the minority of cases wthat will be in the public's gaze. It will become a more accurate, realistic and balanced picture that unfolds which will illustrate that most people who become mentally ill are only ill once and get better and that the vast majority of murders are committed by people who know exactly what they are doing and are not therefore deemed to be mentally ill.

I'm not one who normally tries to predict anything, but as I've been watching this campaign gather momentum I predict in the years to come all that I have cited above will happen.

Pause for Thought
If you ask the average person why they don't respond to someone who is mentally ill there is actually (in my opinion) a worse answer than "because I'm afraid of them" or "because I fear making things worse" or even "because I think they should be shot as defects or mutants". It's even worse than "I don't care about them".

It's that they don't think about responding at all. Lack of response is the ultimate form of dismissive behaviour and that lack of response can lead to all manner of extreme behaviour in order to try to gain attention. I should know, I did just that when I was ill... hundreds of angry emails were sent to get some attention from people who didn't want to listen. By the time they did I was so ill that if I made sense at all it was a miracle. It's not uncommon for employers to wait until a person is that ill before responding so that they can persuade them to want to leave of their own volition.

However, everyone is consumed with their own world. Each person is the centre of their universe and never at the centre of anyone else's. So it follows that a lack of response is often down to nothing more than that individual being preoccupied with other things.

So to create awareness of mental health issues it might be necessary to think up ways of making it interesting for the 'preoccupied' to become engaged and interested enough to want to be educated about the whole subject.

I advocate relating mental illness to ordinary lives and to give it more of a presence as befits the statistics. We're told a quarter of the population suffer in this way, but specifically in what way?

Do we all have eating disorders? Do we all self-harm? Are we all OCD? Do we all hear voices? Do we all have phobias? Do we all suffer with stress, anxiety, sleep problems, paranoias, personality disorders, schizoid symptoms, mood swings etc etc etc. The answer is... no.

It is the counting up of all the cases covering a wide variety of conditions that gives us the "1 in 4 people get ill in this way" fact. Perhaps by increasing awareness on the sheer variety of conditions that's included in that 25% of the population will make things more relevant to the currently indifferent and thereby create more interest from them to get educated on the subject as a whole. A relatively 'minor' condition can all too easily lead to something major because of the stigma. For the sufferer there is no such thing as a 'minor' or 'major' condition all are equally as painful and distressing.

Bereavement is something no one is immune to, (hence why I keep citing it as an example). It is natural and normal process to go through, but it is also (in my opinion), a form of depression and therefore something that everyone can and, I think, should try to understand a little more about. My thinking here is that if people understood bereavement a bit more, perhaps they could then understand other forms of distress in the mental illness spectrum too.

I haven't seen examples of what a difference prejudice and indifference can make to a person's mental health in terms of intensity, severity of symptoms and in their longevity, but I hope to. The day I do, that beacon of light will suddenly become so dazzlingly bright that I have a hunch I may have to get a strong pair of sunglasses. Here's hoping.

To sign up to the campaign follow this link:

And here's another link if you want to have your say: