By Sam Molyneux
Schizo. Nutter. Attention-seeker. Psycho. Fatter. Doesn’t matter.
Oh, but how it does.
Setting a heavy flip-chart down with a huff of exertion, a few weeks ago I looked about the slightly small meeting room on the second floor of the aptly named ‘Old Gym’ with a twinge of apprehension. A twinge was all that it came to be, however, for the first of a series of two-day training courses I’d been coordinating ran without a hitch. Not only that, it brought powerful insight above and beyond the training that was expected.
Mental Health First Aid is a certified training course delivered to officers of the law as much as community workers, seasoned business professionals as much as the greenhorn psychology undergraduate, teaching candidates exactly what to do in situations spanning psychotic episodes to threats of suicide. But the broadness of its audience mirrors the expanse of its need in a society that has long neglected people with a certain kind of illness. Labels are misperceived as wholly defining that which they describe, and so society is segregated into the ‘normal’ and the ‘mentally ill’.
The first error in this perception, and the first lesson of the course, is that no such labels should rightfully exist. See for yourself the difference in emotional impact when you read the phrase ‘physical illness’ versus ‘mental illness’. ‘Mental health’ is not a negative term – it is as neutral as ‘physical health’, and yet the connotations persist. Mental health describes the continuum we’re all placed somewhere along: there’s no ground to be divided and labelled, only space to be shared. Additionally, the notion of ‘normal’ is nonsense: somebody suffering from general anxiety disorder is as normal as another suffering from arthritis (both approx. affecting 1 in 6 – ONS & NHS).
We’ve posted about the ongoing BBC Three series Don’t Call Me Crazy in our Friday Bites, but a conversation about a third of the way into the first episode really puts a voice to this point, handing a rare microphone to the judged:
“People just don’t understand it because they can’t actually physically see there’s something wrong” – Beth, who lives with depression
“It’s like if someone has a cold or something you wouldn’t go ‘Why have you got a cold, you’ve got no reason to have one'” – Emma, who lives with OCD
Beth continues on the show’s website:
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness… it’s not a laughing joke now is it? Just because somebody isn’t walking around with a cast on their leg, doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering. Mental illnesses are far more complex and severe than just a broken leg.
Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
You can read all of what Beth has to say here.
Everybody has mental health, and it’s as complex and varied as our individual personalities. It’s our calm assumption that the former replaces the latter in clinical populations that’s the problem: the perception that once a person becomes ill they become their label, their illness, and somehow cease to be a human being. Somehow, in the eyes of society, they lose all the richness and uniqueness of person they possessed before they became ill, and are dismissed as such.
Another important distinction MHFA training brought to light, even in that first hour or so of the total fourteen, is the difference between mental health and mental wellbeing. The mind, a product of only the most complex object in the universe (i.e. the brain), is bound to encounter a few functional hiccups in all of its innumerate integrations and processes, and the degree to which everything is running smoothly is encapsulated in that continuum of mental health. The latter, mental wellbeing, describes how happy or content you are with your life, and can be present in varying proportions wherever you lie along the mental health continuum. This means that, yes, mental health service users can accept their illness and still live a happy and fulfilling life, as much as those who have everything are never content. Stigma is the force that grinds down on patient’s wellbeing to the point they feel isolated and forgotten at a time they couldn’t need support more. Strangely, I don’t remember this distinction and the lessons it brings ever being highlighted in my two years of degree-level lectures, yet it’s something as simple as it is fundamental to understanding the infinite diversity of people.
Such insight into the lives of those who harbour a misunderstood illness should be known to everyone. Indeed, one of our instructors, Aiesha, raised the point that stigma comes from the fact it’s a topic to be avoided. The issue is propagated through the generations with youngsters none the wiser, and she rightfully questioned why a rudimentary knowledge of mental health isn’t taught as part of the National Curriculum. Ignorance begets ignorance, not innocence – by shaming the ill we shame ourselves. Mental illness affects one in four people, a whole quarter: our friends, family members and neighbours alike. The message is clear: as a society we need to step up.
Fortunately, the oppressive force of such stigma is showing cracks. Major broadcasters are getting the word out to millions of people with shows like Don’t Call Me Crazy. The government is funding community development projects such as URBRUM and instructors from Birmingham Mind, making Mental Health First Aid freely available to students in the Birmingham area. Tears of the silent are increasingly becoming defiant voices of the vulnerable.
Perhaps one day it’ll finally become the acceptance of the quarter.
Featured image credit: NHS.