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How many people have to die before we open our minds to mental illness?

On August 11, an odd phenomenon occurred all across the world: silence. The kind of silence that only comes when absolute shock renders you completely speechless. Actor and comic legend Robin Williams had died, and it was believed to be suicide.

Media outlets tripped over one another to link the cause of this apparent suicide to the depression Williams had, with even his publicist pointing people in that direction by stating that “he had been battling very severe depression“ in the time leading up to his death. And it opened a dialogue that had long been largely neglected - if Robin Williams, a man who released comedy and humour from every pore in his body, could be that depressed, couldn’t anyone?

This dialogue didn’t last long though. Within 48 hours of the news first breaking, newspapers traded their united ‘it was due to depression’ message to point the fingers elsewhere. From financial difficulties to a recent diagnosis of early stage Parkinson’s disease, the idea that mental health problems at all contributed was long forgotten. And with it were the adult conversations people were almost having about mental health.

This is just one of the problems that is continually faced by those who have mental health problems - nobody seems to be ready to have any sort of real conversation about it. This begs the question: how many people have to die before we’re ready to talk about this seriously?

We need to normalise the conversations about mental health.

“Everyone needs to understand that it’s okay to not be okay, and that being silent is not being strong.”

Time to talk:

There are a lot of charities and campaigns that try to bring this dialogue to the fore. Time To Change is one such campaign. It is a mental health anti-stigma campaign run by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, and it aims to educate people in the truths about mental illness.

People often think that mental health problems aren’t common, when in fact one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in any year,“ a Time To Change spokesperson tells me. “Even now, nearly nine out of ten people with mental health problems say they face stigma and discrimination as a result.

Time To Change largely goes about educating people through the sharing of very personal stories, as “it’s through people’s individual stories that we can learn the most about mental illness.” Time To Change does this largely through blogs on the campaign’s website.

But bringing the discussion to the fore is just the first step in changing our attitude towards mental health problems. As Rachel Clare, deputy director of male suicide prevention charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), says “We need to normalise the conversations about mental health, remove the fear of those conversations and treat sufferers of mental health problems in the same ways as those with physical health problems“.

But how exactly can we change the attitude towards mental health problems? “Media portrayals and reporting are extremely powerful influences on attitudes towards mental health, both good and bad“, says a spokesperson for Time To Change. And to help make sure that mental illnesses are not portrayed incorrectly in the media, the campaign has its own media advisory guidelines.

But despite these guidelines keeping media from inaccurately portraying mental illness and perpetuating misinformation, there is still a lot of public confusion about mental health.

The public opinion

I conducted a street poll and interviewed 27 members of the public, 13 male and 14 female. Surprisingly, only 10 people (roughly 37%) of people asked had a reasonable understanding of mental health problems. From the other 43%, there was a lot of recurring themes.

When asked if they could identify any characteristics in behaviour of people suffering from mental health problems, roughly 30% used the word “unstable”. This is something that Time To Change hear regularly. “One of the biggest misconceptions we hear is that people with mental health problems are usually violent and unpredictable, when in fact people with a severe mental illness are more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator.*” It’s just one of many myths that persist.

You wouldn’t tell someone with pneumonia to ‘pull themselves together’, depression and other mental health disorders should be treated in the same way.

Another that seems to repeat itself a lot is the confusion between “mental health problems” and depression, with 33% of people making assumptions that depression is the only mental health problem. Even so, 40% of the people thought this believed depression to be something people could just “recover from if they have the strength of mind to*.”

This is a point of view echoed very recently by controversy-flirting outrage android Katie Hopkins, who tweeted Doctors need to spend less time signing sick notes and more time dispensing some strong words of advice. Such as ‘get a bloody grip’”, Once I was given a sick note and a prescription for anti-depressants. I threw the note in the bin, ripped up the script & went back to work.”

Depression is not simply a case of feeling ‘a bit sad’, and is as real as any physical illness. It is not a choice. You wouldn’t tell someone with pneumonia to ‘pull themselves together’, you would urge them to go to the GP or hospital,“ says CALM’s Rachel Clare on the subject. “Depression and other mental health disorders should be treated in the same way.

Depression is not really a case of feeling ‘a bit sad’. I think that one of the biggest misconceptions is that mental health disorders are somehow indicative of a weakness in the sufferer.

When asked about how common mental health problems are, almost all people in the street poll were unaware that one in four people will have a mental health problem in any year. And it’s this kind of obliviousness that stands in the way of the dialogue. While people are unaware of how common they are, many will put mental illness down, wrongly, to weakness.

We need to normalise the conversations about mental health,“ says Rachel Clare. “Everyone needs to understand that it’s okay to not be okay, and that being silent is not being strong. By talking about these things we can dispel myths and misunderstandings about mental health and work towards supporting those who need it.

*= % of street poll interviewees, and may not reflect that of the public as a whole.

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