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.