Why we need to change how we think about mental health

The way that most of us understand mental health isn’t doing anyone any favours. All too often, we cordon off people with mental illness as removed from the community of the ‘normal’. By doing this, we assert that only this portion of society needs to worry about mental health, allowing the of us get on with our lives without thinking about it.

To be honest, we’re not even sure that they do have any problems that couldn’t be solved by pulling themselves together. A quite frightening number of us are not really sold on the idea of mental health. We’ve gotten through our own lives okay, so for anyone else to have had a different experience must be because of a weakness of character. We had some tough times, but we pulled through without making a fuss, so what right do these people have to complain? Lots of media outlets espouse the view that mental illness is the invention of an idle and molly-coddled generation, that it doesn’t really exist, and such fabrications wouldn’t have been tolerated in the good old days.

This is all dangerous nonsense. Mental illness is not an invention of the last fifty years. Just as cholera existed before John Snow uncovered its existence, so too have mental health problems existed for thousands of years, even if we have only recently begun to understand them. The fact that we are now beginning to understand and combat these illnesses is a profound and positive change. Around one in four people at any one time have mental health difficulties, and this shouldn’t be seen as a negative reflection on their characters, or as marking them off as forever doomed to suffer. Beginning to understand and treat these illnesses is a massive step forward for society. But we’re shooting ourselves in the foot at the same time. We don’t think about mental illness in the same way as physical illness, and this is dangerous.

We have a bizarre set of double standards when thinking about mental illness and physical illness. Consider how you’d feel if a friend or family member contracted pneumonia. You wouldn’t blame them for their inept immune system, or question whether pneumonia is in fact a real condition. Rather, you would accept that this person is facing something serious, and that they need all the help they can get. We should do the same for mental illness. It strikes me as arrogant and inconsistent to trust medical science on matters clearly pertaining to the body, whilst presuming to cast judgement on illnesses of the mind. We are in no way qualified to do so, particularly given the complexity of the brain. In mocking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet was right to criticise their patronising presumption when they thought they knew his mind: “You would play upon me; you would seem to know / my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my / mystery.” If someone has mental illness, don’t presume to understand it and then dismiss it, because you probably don’t have a clue what they’re going through.

Let us be clear about how we should feel towards people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. By seeking help for their condition, they have taken a brave and powerful step towards transforming their situation. They are showing incredible courage in standing up to a debilitating illness, and we should be proud of them. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to face up to mental illness whilst at the same time having to stand up to severe social stigma. I was quite seriously ill last winter, but I was fortunate that I only had to tackle a physical illness. I did not have to deal with people telling me that my problem did not in fact exist, or that I was somehow a bad or conceited person for having apparently succumbed to it. To face up to an illness and to society’s misguided ridicule at the same is truly heroic.

At any one time, one in four of us are dealing with mental illness. If we’re all more understanding and accepting of the importance of mental wellbeing – and the reality of mental illness – it’d make it a lot easier for all of us to deal with these problems as they arise. Such a culture of openness would also allow more of us, who are suffering in silence through fear of social stigma, to work through our  problems. It’s okay to have a mental illness, and it does not separate you from everyone else. So let’s have some more love for people with mental illness, and a little more love for yourself.

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One Response to Why we need to change how we think about mental health

  1. Dologan says:

    I agree that there ought to be a change in attitude towards mental disease in a more compassionate direction akin to the one we usually have for the physically ill. However, I think it is easy to understand why this difference of perception exists, and why it is difficult to address, as there are a couple of significant differences between most physical and mental illnesses.

    One of them is simply the cause of the ailments, which in the case of physical illnesses are often external microorganisms, which could potentially infect anyone. When people feel they could easily find themselves in that condition, it is much easier to elicit sympathy. In contrast, mental illnesses are usually genetic and poorly understood and for the most part not contagious and also sometimes chronic. Thus, the impression is that these people are ill because they are inherently different, not because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Another issue is how close the two types hit us to the notion of who we are and thus the notions of personal worth. When someone is physically sick, it is usually perceived as if the person has something nasty on top of them, but that beneath the miserable-feeling and looking exterior the same person remains. However, what defines people are ultimately their minds and when this very fabric is disrupted it may become quite difficult for people to recognise it as a disruption rather than an intrinsic pattern in it. It’s easy to regard sneezing as something separate from the personality of a friend, but not so their mood or strange habits.

    In any case, it must be recognised that our minds are ultimately entirely dependant on the fragile physical objects that are our brains and that as such, there is no real difference between a prostrated person because of some mutinous cell growth in his colon than one because of misfiring neurons in her brain; just as there is no real difference between the luck of inhaling a nasty virus from a sneezing passerby and inheriting an unstable gene from your parents. Mental illnesses are often treatable and there is no excuse for making it more difficult for people who suffer from them to get the assistance that they need.

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