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Column: Silence can be the most damaging sound of all

The condemnation over two major retailers selling ‘mental patient’ costumes is to be welcomed – but it underlines just how much we need to talk openly about mental health, writes Christie Louise Tucker.

Christie Louise Tucker

IT’S 7PM ON a Thursday night and the house lights go down at the Palace Theatre in London. At the same time, miles away in Leeds and Cheshunt, Asda and Tesco Public Relations staff are coming to the end of a long day. Since the “mental patient” Hallowe’en costume story broke and outraged Twitter users bombarded the stores with complaints, even Asda’s £25,000 donation to Mind has failed to quell the tide of anger.

At the theatre, though, an altogether different approach to psychological difficulties is in evidence. The curtains open on a night of comedy in support of 1 in 4, a coalition of local mental health organisations that aim to improve awareness of services in the area. The money raised on the door will enable the charities to offer assistance to those most in need of their help. It’s a serious task, but you wouldn’t guess – the jokes are wicked, coming thick and fast, and the theatre echoes with laughter. It’s an overwhelmingly positive response in an area so often occupied with negativity and ignorance.

Dismissive attitudes

During the weekend that follows, British Prime Minister David Cameron will make dismissive remarks about angering the “Mental Health lobby” and footage will emerge of Conservative politician Eric Pickles publicly telling a child abuse survivor to “adjust [her] medication” – both symptomatic of the disregard that even prominent politicians show for the topic. If even someone so prominently in the public eye can afford to mock, how is anyone else meant to gauge what’s acceptable?

When approached for comment, Dr Joseph Duffy, a Clinical Psychologist and the Director of Clinical Governance with Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, said, “associating dressing up with a person who is in considerable mental distress increases the stigma around mental difficulties and gives children and young people a very negative message.

What we need to do is to support people to understand the difference between mental health and mental issues, to be able to look after themselves and their mental health and be there to support others if they are going through a tough time. The swift reaction condemning these stigmatising costumes is to be welcomed.  It shows that we are making another small step, letting go of the past and recognising that mental health problems are no longer something to make fun about.”

Prejudice born of vicious myths

Our prejudice and ignorance is born of vicious myths and half-understood statistics, amplified by lazy news stories and convenient assumptions. Schizophrenia seems to be mentioned most frequently in relation to violent crime or murder, even though people with mental health problems are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. At best, we remain slightly unsure of people who have had mental health problems, despite statistics showing that one in four Irish people will experience depression during their lives.

For someone who is experiencing their first brush with mental health difficulties, other people’s reactions can seem to confirm their worst fears about themselves. For people with longer-running conditions, the judgements of others can be as problematic as the issue itself. Because of this, mental health problems become harder to talk about, become a secret shared in strictest confidence. In a society that regards suicide as a mortal sin, taboos can be hard to break.

Perceived shame

HSE research in 2007 discovered that 62 per cent of Irish people wouldn’t want other people to know if they had a mental health problem. Instead of looking inwards, ignoring the perceived shame and embarrassment of acknowledging mental health problems, we should be looking forward to a day when someone can state – not admit, not confess, but calmly and matter-of-factly state – that they’ve had mental health problems. When a bout of depression is no more shameful than a migraine or the flu.

As simple as it sounds, the same HSE report recommends talking as the best means of looking after your own mental health. This can mean talking to other people, but it also means listening when other people need to talk to you. Sometimes, even just a quick text to say “are you okay?” can make all the difference. It can be awkward, yes, and it’s hard to know what to say, but it’s vital that we try. In a world full of noise and chatter, silence can be the most damaging sound of all.

Christie Louise Tucker read Journalism at the University of Essex between 2004 and 2007. Originally an entertainment writer, her attention has since shifted to subjects as diverse as feminism, atheism, equality, health, and society and culture. Christie has been a guest blogger at the F Word and  the Quail Pipe, is a regular contributor at Femusings, and has her own blog at www.elwellpress.blogspot.co.uk. Read more of her articles for TheJournal.ie here.

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Christie Louise Tucker

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