Mental Health Awareness Week has just gone by and there are still sixteen million people with a form of mental illness in the United Kingdom, roughly the equivalent of one in four adults. And yet, despite this significant number, there are still multiple stigmas surrounding those who suffer from mental illnesses.
To me ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ means educating people on what mental illness means, and to remove the stigma around it, yet also recognising that mental illness is as real as any physical illness and something to be taken seriously. The ‘Mind UK’ website stipulates that ‘in England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week’. A large statistic? Yes. But surprising? Given the social climate of the 21st century, I would have to disagree.
Research suggests that the majority of people who hold negative attitudes and stereotypes towards people with mental illness learn these views from a young age. Children will refer to their peers as “crazy” or “weird” and whilst these terms are used commonly throughout adulthood as well, and may seem like empty adjectives from the outset, it is when we look in much deeper detail that we realise the damage labelling someone with mental health issues as these derogatory terms can have. Often the negative stereotypes involve perceptions that people with mental illness are dangerous, fuelled by media stories that paint violent perpetrators as “mentally ill” yet they do not provide the context of the broad spectrum of mental illness. This bias is not limited to people who are either uninformed or disconnected from people with mental illness; in fact, health care providers and even some mental health professionals hold these very same stereotypes.
When people feel that an individual with mental illness is dangerous, it results in fear and increased social distance. This social distancing may result in the experience of social isolation or loneliness on the part of people with mental illness. People with mental health issues recognise this stigma and develop an almost self-fulfilling prophecy of acting how people expect them to behave. This self-stigma will often undermine self-efficiency, resulting in a “why try” attitude that can worsen prospects of recovery, causing some to fall into depression. This is not acceptable. To allow members of society to be effectively ostracised because of a condition they cannot help is simply uncalled for. You wouldn’t deliberately exclude someone for being in a wheel chair or having an ‘obvious’ disability, so why does excluding someone who has a mental condition where the disability is not as obvious okay? To put it in short, it’s not.
To be mindful and considerate of other people is a simple solution. We never know what our peers are going through and to be aware and supportive to them in their times of need doesn’t take much effort. So next time if you notice even the smallest of signs that a peer could be struggling with their mental health, ask if they’re okay. You may be the helping hand they’ve been waiting for.
As part of this article, I collaborated with Sophie Barker, senior desk editor of Flair to show mental health issues through photography and put a creative spin on the subject. Click on Sophie's name to look at the photos and hopefully you gain insight from looking at them.