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Column: Mental illness isn’t abnormal – it’s part of being human

Campaigner John McCarthy died yesterday. Here, the director of See Change writes about why we need to talk about mental health now more than ever.

John Saunders

Yesterday brought the death of veteran mental health campaigner John McCarthy, who founded the Mad Pride movement to push for reduction of the stigma around mental health issues.

But the campaign to open up the discussion continues. With the First Fortnight festival in full swing, John Saunders of See Change writes about why mental health problems are normal – and why we all need to be talking about them.

ONE IN FOUR of us will experience a mental health problem. That’s enough of us to fill Croke Park fourteen times over, and its more people than the combined populations of Cork, Clare, Galway, Limerick and Waterford.

So if it affects so many us, why is there such a stigma around mental health problems? Why are we so uncomfortable talking about our mental health? Why are mental health problems one of society’s greatest and last taboos?

I believe that the answer is fear.

Despite the ordinariness of mental health problems, we fear being different, being ostracised, being labelled. And let’s face it; we still have fear of the large psychiatric institution up on the hill in so many towns around Ireland that have negatively impacted on many lives. Indeed, Ireland in our not too distant past, held the unfortunate title of having the world’s most people per capita institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals. Did we have more mental health problems than any other country in the world? Not likely, but we managed to create a fear around ‘madness’ that still lingers today and has a tight grip on us.

Yet mental health problems are nothing to be frightened of; they’re part of the normal ups and downs of life. We all have mental health – positive and negative – and are all vulnerable to mental health problems at points in our lives. Yet many of us who experience mental health problems are too scared to tell our friends, family, neighbors and colleagues for fear of how they might react or what they might think.

‘A person with a mental health problem is a normal human being’

The irony is that a person with a mental health problem is not in fact different from the rest of society, but rather experiencing quite an ordinary part of being a human being. Let there be no doubt that people with mental health problems can and do recover. However, the stigma that surrounds mental health problems can prevent people speaking out or seeking the help that could help start their recovery.

Stigma hurts. It can be used to isolate, exclude and discriminate against people. Stigma is often cited as almost as difficult to manage as the experience of being unwell.

So what can we do?

We can start to address the fear by talking about mental health and mental health problems.

Before we launched See Change, Ireland’s national campaign working to change minds about mental health problems, we conducted research on Irish attitudes to mental health problems. The results paint a worrying picture about how Ireland thinks about mental health problems and the stigma that surrounds them.

  • We found that while the majority of people agree that virtually anyone can experience a mental health problem, 1 in 2 of us wouldn’t want others to know if we had a mental health problem.
  • We found that stigma acts as a barrier to people asking for help. Nearly 30 per cent of young men would delay seeking help for fear of someone else finding out, and one in three people would hide mental health problems from friends.
  • The outlook for recovery from mental illness is seen as poor with only one in five strongly agreeing that ‘the majority of people with mental health problems recover.’

That’s not to say that the appetite for information and open discussion on mental health does not exist –I experienced this hunger for greater and more meaningful dialogue on mental health problems only this week at the First Fortnight Festival. This is Ireland’s first ten-day arts and cultural programme staged to explore the several facets of mental health in the hope of fostering a shared understanding of mental health problems.

Organised by a committed group of volunteers, the First Fortnight Festival is an example of how talking about mental health problems does not have to be scary, and can even be enjoyable. Rather than hanging a sign on a door saying ‘Mental Health Discussion’, the focus is on arts events and the utilisation of safe social spaces where the potential for non scripted, fulsome discussion becomes more likely.

As people bump into each other in bustling venues, we bear witness to positive social contact in action. The arts provide a unique and powerful way of engaging with mental health issues such as stigma, identity, social justice and happiness. Mental health stimulates artistic creativity, emerging from lived experiences or as a subject matter.

Between songs on stage at the Workman’s Club in Temple Bar on the festival’s opening night, Verse Chorus Verse’s Tony Wright summed up the whole First Fortnight ethos:

I had the privilege of being able to play last year for the First Fortnight festival and it really helped me in a lot of ways. I have been diagnosed with bipolar myself. I kept it very quiet and then I did the festival and everybody knew and that was the brilliant thing. It was so incredibly liberating because it was just like ‘Yeah I’ve got that and it’s fine. It’s totally fine, that’s me, that’s part of who I am, it’s fine.’

Tackling the ingrained stigma that surrounds mental health problems will not happen overnight. Projects like the First Fortnight Festival that seek to engage and inspire conversations at community level are a proven way to help create change. I am delighted that First Fortnight is a See Change partner. With over 50 partners representing many sectors within Irish society, together we are working hard to create social change by using a multi-pronged, internationally tested approach, the cornerstone of which is social contact theory – where individuals with lived experience share their stories – and people (one person, or one ripple at a time) realise that mental health problems are indeed quite ordinary and that there should be no prejudice or discrimination around our mental health.

Everyone has a role to play in challenging stigma on an individual level by being open to the possibility that anyone can experience a mental health problem in their life-time. The key is recognising that by being open and seeking timely help, people can and do recover from mental health problems and can go on to lead full lives. Yes the media has a role to play in challenging (as well as perpetuating) stigma. The same is true for employers, employees, health professionals and policy makers. We need people to talk. Talk about mental health and mental health problems in the boardroom, breakroom, newsroom, classroom, pitch and kitchen table.

What would you do if someone told you that they had a mental health problem?

John Saunders is the director of See Change, the national stigma-reduction partnership. The First Fortnight Festival 2012 is staged by arts-based mental health volunteers First Fortnight in association with See Change.

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John Saunders

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