Mental health awareness week: dispelling the myths and breaking the stigma

1 in four people will experience a Mental Health issue during their life.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week! It’s a great reason to share a helpful list of things everyone should be more aware of about Mental Health:

  1. 1 in four people will experience a Mental Health issue during their life. If you’re part of a couple, and you’re out to dinner with another couple, it means that it will theoretically affect one of you. It’s that intimate a statistic. If you’re part of a two parent family with two kids, again, that’s one family member. Of course it varies. These are just simple statistics. There are a lot of genetic links to mental health which means some families have much higher incidence (and much higher awareness) of Mental Health Issues. With statistics like this, I like to think about how many people live in my street, and how many of them this means are affected. Try it. I think it will surprise you.
  2. These figures are misleadingly low, as they do not include people in hospitals, prisons, in sheltered housing or who are homeless. It’s pretty obvious that all those groups will have extremely high numbers of people with mental health issues. When you also consider the number of people who don’t recognise their Mental Health issues or go undiagnosed, the real statistics could easily be much higher.
  3. The most common mental health disorders are anxiety and depression, and one of the most rapidly growing is PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. All of these are still hugely misunderstood by the general population, however. 
  4. Anxiety doesn’t mean you’re ‘nervous’, ‘frightened of life’ or ‘over-sensitive’: it means that you carry non-specific and unfocussed feeling or dread and fear throughout your everyday experience. Sometimes these feelings will attach themselves to certain situations or circumstances, but they are not the cause of them. It can be utterly debilitating and make doing anything exhausting.
  5. Depression is not the same as sadness or despondency or grief. If it was, there would indeed be simple solutions. It’s not something that needs to be ‘about’ any specific thing, or has a cause, although it can be triggered or made worse by circumstances. Statements like “You don’t seem depressed,” or “What have you got to be depressed about?” are not just unhelpful but damaging. Depression steals your energy, your hope and your will, and replaces them with nothing but a huge, suffocating weight that holds you down and makes any thought or action exhausting. There’s no point in saying, “Why can’t you just…?” to someone with depression. They just can’t. What they need is understanding and acceptance, and the knowledge you are still there for them.
  6. PTSD is linked in most people’s minds with soldiers who’ve been in war zones, or people who’ve suffered physical violence or natural disasters. It makes obvious sense to us that these situations would cause mental damage. It’s easy to not realise that PTSD can come from any trauma, including abusive relationships, and not all abuse or trauma is physical. In many ways, mental trauma is much more damaging, as it is so much harder to see. We still understand so little of how individual minds work, how to fix them is rarely obvious. Physical therapy is usually a matter of simple cause and effect. Mental therapy involves exploring unknown territories – often in the dark with no torch. The physical and mental are inextricably linked, and physical therapies for mental health are proving unexpectedly successful. Treatments like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprogramming) and Art or Music therapy have a direct and often dramatic way to reach areas of our mind we may otherwise be unable to.
  7. Medication is not a crutch, it’s a pair of glasses. For many people, medication can be a life-changing, and lifelong intervention. It should not have the stigma or negative association that it does. If your eyesight is not as clear as it could be, you see an optician and they will find lenses to improve your vision so that you can see the world around you. It’s not a sign of ‘weakness’ or ‘failure to cope’. Glasses may have had their own brief stigma in the past, but there is no sensible argument for not wearing them if you need them. Living medication-free is not a worthwhile, meaningful or achievable goal for many people, and not something you would suggest to someone with diabetes or asthma.
  8. So much of our language is keyed to negative Mental Health stereotypes. Something as simple as describing something as ‘madness’ or ‘crazy’, or referring to someone as ‘psycho’ or ‘mental’ all promote this stigma. If you need to describe something or someone in negative terms, try not to use words that make reference to mental conditions or perceived intelligence. We have a rich and varied language available to us, so there is no excuse for stigmatising language.
  9. What is ‘normal’ anyway? There is no such thing as ‘normal’, and it is often used in a discriminatory way, as in “I’m not X, I’m normal!” Some things may be more common or have higher incidence than others, but that doesn’t make them necessarily better or more desirable. Many people seek conformity and the security of being part of the larger or dominant group, but many also do not. Both are fine.
  10. Numbers of diagnoses for many conditions have gone up in recent years, and continue to rise. This is not because we are ‘too soft’ or overrun with ‘snowflakes’. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. People are brave enough to be public about who they are, and increased knowledge, publicity and acceptance mean that more people are seeking treatment than ever before, and treatment is more accessible too – if still woefully lacking and underfunded. Seeking help when you need it is not an expression of weakness, it’s an act of strength.

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