Article - The stigma around Mental Health

Last week was ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’. 

I am consciously writing about it after, rather than before the week in question – because I hope that we are not going to regard mental health awareness as something that should only last for one week. We need, on the contrary, to make the next decade at least a ‘Mental Health Decade’.

It wasn’t that long ago that we used to be afraid about talking about cancer. I remember, as a child, just half a century ago, hearing adults literally whisper the word. It was a synonym for death – and accusing someone of having cancer at that time was like pronouncing a death sentence on the person in question. 

Of course, nowadays, that has all changed. Although there isn’t exactly a cure for cancer as yet, there are many, remarkably successful ways of tacking it (or at least most forms of it), and we all know plenty of people who have had it and are still happily living amongst us. So we are no longer too terrified to talk about it. 

I am afraid that mental illness is still suffering from the same problem that cancer suffered from 50 years ago. We are too frightened to talk about it. 

Part of the reason for this, no doubt, is that some forms of it are still incredibly difficult to treat effectively. But, given that there are actually effective techniques for helping people to manage their way out of many widespread forms of mental illness such as anxiety and depression, and given that there are effective interventions even for many of the most serious psychosis, I don’t think this can be the whole explanation for us being afraid to discuss mental illness as openly as we should. 

I think that the root of the problem actually lies in the fact that mental illness, unlike physical illness, still carries (amazingly) some of the stigma that it carried back in the 19th Century and beyond. And that, in turn, I think derives from the fact that mental illness is in some ways more profound than physical illness – because it affects our personalities rather than merely our bodies. We are afraid of it because the prospect of an assault on our inner being is the most terrifying thing that we can imagine. 

But if we are to recognise the full scale of the problem, and if we are to devote a proper proportion of our NHS resources to dealing with it, we have to get over these understandable fears. 

The discussion of mental illness has to become as open and frank and unashamed as the discussion of physical illness - so that we can also talk in an open and unconstrained way about the steps we need to take to address it. 

Having a ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ is one way of beginning to prompt such open discussion – but it is only the beginning of what must be a sustained effort to put a final end to the taboo.