So, in this chapter Alice enters the Queen of Heart’s garden, there she sees, unsurprisingly, some gardeners. However, they’re painting white roses red, why? Because that’s what the Queen wants to see, and they don’t want her to know that they’ve failed, because she’ll chop off their heads.
Although this is a scene from a Children’s book, it mirrors how many who suffer with mental health problems feel. That crushing need to conceal their struggle, and put on, or paint on, a brave face for the world. On average, a person with depression waits seven years before they seek treatment.
And why is this? Because society has stigmatized mental health and the perception of those who suffer with it back to the Dark Ages.
The fact we still lump it all together as ‘mental health’ astounds me, imagine going into to the doctor with several ailments and them going “oh yes that’s a physical health problem.”
Stigma means a mark of dishonour or disgrace on a circumstance, it is the physical A on Hester Prynne’s dress in The Scarlet Letter for her supposed adultery and it is attached to mental health. Are we really disgracing people for having feelings?
With stigma, comes stereotypes. People with depression are just sad all the time, people with anxiety can’t deal with anything and if you have bipolar then you’re violent. Despite 1 in 4 people suffering with a mental health problem at a point in their life, many are reluctant to talk about it and thus these inaccurate assumptions remain.
Better repress and remain depressed than dare to talk about how you feel – good old British stiff upper lip.
For some reason because we can’t see mental health on people we don’t believe it’s that bad or even real – sorry what are all world religions based on? Oh yes, invisible omnipotent deities.
A lot of people would say they don’t stigmatize mental health, but consider this, if you had to call an employer to say you couldn’t come into work, what would you rather say:
1. I have a migraine.
2. I’m having a panic attack.
I’m sure most would say 1, I know I would because I’ve done it myself. The first time I had the guts to tell an employer I couldn’t come in because I’d had two anxiety attacks the night before I actually had another over the thought of telling them.
Kevin Breel, a comedian, writer and mental health activist sums up this perception: “we live in a world where if you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast, but if you tell people you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way.” You see this every day. When people see someone having a heart attack or fall over in public they rush to help them, but when these same people see someone crying erratically or having a panic attack, most of the time they make a specific effort to ignore them and pretend they can’t see it. It’s not that these people are bad or don’t care, it’s just been drilled into our heads that people who act excessively emotional must be crazy and therefore avoided.
Sadly, for some this isolation leads them to suicide, because what’s the point? In a TED talk John Nieuwenburg explained that in 2013, intentional self-harm (suicide) was the 10th highest cause of death in America, in that year alone there were 44,193, and it is estimated most take 25 attempts before ‘succeeding’. Just as a point of comparison there were only 16,000 homicides.
And number nine on the list, a ‘physical health problem’, Nephritis/Nephrotic syndrome/Nephrosis was only marginally higher with 49,959.
Not just a couple of people crying in the corner is it?
We completely accept and empathize with those who suffer with physical health problems, rightly so, and thus funding is pumped into treatment and awareness, but for some reason we can’t comprehend that mental health could possibly be as painful as its sufferers make out. In terms of research for treatment, cancer attracts £1,500 for research per person, mental health doesn’t even get 1% of that. If the figures above haven’t made it transparent enough that mental health is just as significant as physical health in its effect on society, hence people should be able to talk about it openly, then let’s look at the biology of it all and see if it still can be said be that mental health is just people getting a bit too emotional.
The heart, a pretty significant organ, probably the best to compare with the brain. It’s essentially a pump with four chambers and a dozen blood vessels. Now this quite simple piece of anatomy can go
wrong very quickly. Take heart disease, this physical health problem was the highest killer of Americans in 2013. Now onto the brain, it has one hundred billion neurons, with thirty trillion connections. It controls your basic functions, your character and your abilities, but of course it’d be ridiculous to say that with this level of intricacy some people’s brains don’t function like everyone else’s and sometimes
wires get crossed.
With all this evidence it confuses me, that people like Piers Morgan, dare to dismiss the 34 million British who suffer with mental health problems. I’m sure many saw his tweet earlier this year telling us all, particularly men, to ‘Man up’. Yep that’ll definitely help the problem.
Why don’t we just stick all the mentally ill in shame chambers and burn them with hot irons to make the devil that is mental illness leave their souls. Do you think that’ll work Piers? Because your
opinions are Medieval.
So, what do I think should be done to help tackle stigma?
On a basic level, sufferers need to speak up, even if it’s just to friends and family at first. The more we speak up, the louder we are, and therefore, harder to ignore.
For a long time, I was too scared to even tell my closest friends and family about my problems. I managed to hide behind the red rose for a long time, but the paint began to crack when I came to
university. By three or so months in my down days had become my only days, I wanted to drop out, I wanted to end my life. It took my best friend essentially crying down the phone to me and her going
to my dad before I actually spoke about it. When you’re in a bad place, it’s like your trying to start a car that has no petrol. Or there’s a dumbbell in your stomach, slowly getting bigger and bigger and moving around your body, weighing you down. You might want to feel better, but you can’t do it alone.
When I eventually had the courage to tell my friends and family that no “I was not ok” and that I wanted to get help, there was overwhelming support. I get that most people, including myself, assume the reaction will be disappointment, sadness or even the idea of placing an unnecessary burden on your parents, thanks to the constructs of society. However, my dad’s reaction will always stick with me, “you are the most precious thing in my life and a damn degree will never be worth losing you”.
Eventually I met with my university councillor, and I’ll never regret that decision. If you are scared or anxious about someone not taking your problems seriously or are nervous how you’ll feel once you expose your true emotions and feelings, don’t worry everyone has felt those fears. Yet by getting it out, talking about it, you will feel better, realise you are not alone and that someone is there to help you.
Those who love you and care will never judge you, they’ll support you and believe me you’ll need it.
And yet, some do not have the needed core support system, so it is essential that friends and peers can be an ear to listen in. And according to YouGov this is the situation, supposedly, 84% of students
accepted that mental health was as serious as physical, only 6% viewed the opposite. Moreover, that 74% said they would show concern and be mindful of the person’s troubles, for 19% it wouldn’t
change how they saw the person, so they wouldn’t react and only 3% said they would be more cautious around said person. I must admit I’m slightly sceptical of these statistics as it paints a very rose-tinted version of human behaviour, reality and statistic can be polar opposites.
Either way if you see someone struggling just ask ‘you ok?’, worst thing they’ll say is ‘yeah, I’m fine’, but the best? You might give someone the courage to speak up.
In order to ensure people have the confidence to speak up, there needs to be more public conversations between friends, activists, celebrities, councillors and governments. And there needs
to money allocated into teaching children from a young age about mental health, so that stigmas and shame cannot continue to infect people’s minds.
I highly recommend watching Russell Kane’s video on Mental Health Week, and yes, I agree with him, air out your dirty laundry and shove it in Piers Morgan’s letterbox, no one deserves to die of Britishness.
Be a white rose and own it.