It’s a sad fact that mental health issues still have an awful lot of stigma attached to them, despite efforts that have been made in the past to change the negative attitudes. Personally, I’ve not experienced much stigma myself because my mental health isn’t something I discuss with people outside my family and close friends.
I shouldn’t have to feel as though I have to hide the fact that I’ve had a psychotic breakdown. I shouldn’t, but I still do, because that’s the way our society seems to have evolved. Mental health issues aren’t talked about even though they should be. We’re almost a decade into the twenty-first century, but the Victorian-era attitudes to mental health still abound.
I can’t quite imagine what it would be like if stigma was outlawed completely. It would be a different world, for certain. A better world? A world without shame? I don’t think even the best fantasy writers could successfully conjure that up, because it’s so far away from where we are now.
The stigma is rather like a vicious circle. It comes about because of ignorance — it’s a facet of human nature to fear things we don’t understand — but because people don’t understand, the fears and misconceptions lead to a situation where it becomes taboo to discuss those things, much less admit to them. If nobody talks about mental health, how can the ignorance and misconceptions be alleviated?
The Time to Change campaign does go quite a distance in challenging ignorance towards mental health issues. It’s hard hitting, to the point, and is backed by well-known celebrities trying bravely to break down the barriers of ignorance by admitting their own battles with mental health issues. But is it enough?
The problem with any campaign is that in a world of freedom and democracy, people don’t have to listen if they don’t want to. Nobody can force them to let go of their misconceptions. Nobody can make them change their prejudices.
Freedom of speech is a bit of a monster in that sense, because despite the Time to Change campaign and the constant battle against stigma, ignorance is still endemic. Until the day some law is passed forcing every citizen to attend some class to debunk their ignorance, stigma is not going to go away. I’m not ashamed of my illness, but the plague of ignorance means I can’t be as honest as I would like.
Let’s imagine for a moment that stigma could be, if not extinguished, greatly reduced, and the tide of ignorance pushed back by a sea of honesty. In such a world, my story would have been different. When I first became ill at age 15, I numbered among the ignorant. I didn’t know anything about mental illness, aside from the negative connotations of being “crazy”. It wasn’t something we were taught about – heaven forbid; nobody talks about mental illness, after all.
Despite weekly classes of “Personal and Social Education”, which bizarrely included applying condoms to bananas, mental health issues were never raised. It was as if mental illness didn’t exist. When I began experiencing episodes of mania, depression, and psychosis, I didn’t have a clue what was going on. There was no one I could ask because, quite frankly, I thought I was the only person in the world this was happening to, and I was already “different” enough without making myself out to be a complete “fruitcake”.
This was not the 1940s. This was 1996. It was another eight years before I actually got any help. Ignorance has a lot to answer for, I think, because in this imaginary world where it’s okay to talk about mental health, I wouldn’t have felt forced into silence. I wouldn’t have thought I was alone. I would, perhaps, have recognised signs and symptoms in myself, and maybe even have gotten some help. It’s doubtful that in that ignorance-free world I would have ended up in a police cell at the climax of one of many episodes of psychotic mania.
It is time to change. It is time to tackle the flood of ignorance. Although democratic freedom stands in the way of Utopia, the future may be a different matter. There is a way to get the message across. There is a captive audience, in thousands of schools up and down the country. I wish someone had taught me about mental health issues when I was at that young and very impressionable age. It could make a world of difference.
As for my own attempts at tackling stigma, well, it’s not much, but it’s a start. I’ve written a novel, loosely based on my own experiences with Bipolar Affective Disorder. I hope that by being a little more open about my own mental help, I can help to burst some of the damaging myths about mental illness.