Recently I was talking to someone about mental health and they asked me whether stigma really exists.
After staring at them in bemusement for a few seconds, I said yes and made a poorly constructed argument until they walked away.
Here’s what I wanted to say...
Yes. Stigma and discrimination does exist. And I can prove it with a story about me. Well, two different versions of me.
At university I was a mental health doubter. I thought people with depression needed to pull their socks up. If anyone did anything slightly out of the ordinary, I wouldn’t think twice about chuckling and calling them “mental”. And, most embarrassingly, I once attended a summer ball dressed in a distasteful One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest inspired mental patient outfit – hospital gown, vacant look, the lot.
If you had called me up on my behaviour back then I would have argued it was all a joke and that I wasn’t really hurting anyone. I genuinely believed that. I don’t (and didn’t) consider myself to be a mean individual, but without really knowing it I was blindly perpetuating the cycle of trivialising mental health problems and the experiences of the one in four people every year who live with them.
The unhelpful ideology that men must be men
So why did I think it was OK to act that way? Was it stupidity, or stigma? Whilst it was clearly a bit of stupidity on my part, I really believe that there was and still is a wider problem that I was part of - my attitude reflected the ingrained stigma against mental health problems which is still, sadly, all around us.
I didn’t know anyone with a mental health problem at university. However, I also didn’t know anyone with cancer, heart disease or diabetes and I didn’t make jokes about them.
Part of it for me was fitting into the unhelpful stereotype that men must be men, that we all should just shake off our low moods and that it’s a weakness to open up and be honest about how we really are.
What changed for me
So, here’s where the story of the second me begins.
Like one in four of us, nearly two years ago I experienced a mental health problem and was diagnosed with depression. Fortunately, I spotted the symptoms very early and was able to get support from Cognative Behavioural Therapy and my patient, understanding girlfriend.
Unfortunately, however, the only reason I was able to spot those symptoms so quickly was because I'd been through a difficult couple of years prior to that which saw my uncle take his own life and my father experience a severe and debilitating episode of depression.
“Too old to be suffering from depression”
My uncle was a jovial army man who lived in Newcastle with fellow retired servicemen. As my family live in the south we spoke to him infrequently, so conversations remained light and his state of mind was never raised. His death was as much of a shock to us as the idea that he was ever experiencing a mental health problem.
Nearly a year later my mum told me that my dad had depression and had been dealing with it alone and in silence, undiagnosed, for eight months.
Two comments that stick with me from my dad during his experience were when he said he was “too old to be suffering from depression” and, after his first session of group therapy, “everyone there was just normal.” If they aren’t the words of a man brought up in a society founded on misconceptions around mental health, I don’t know what are.
Talking helped with my problems
Mental health problems do not discriminate, we do. It’s important that we stop so we can start delivering the message that it’s OK to talk about it.
The second me is a far cry from the first me in this blog, but I’m just disappointed it took so long, and so many sacrifices, to see that my behaviour and attitude was wrong.
I urge everyone not to wait until mental health problems directly affect them before starting to talk about it. I’ve personally seen how a caring environment free from trivialisation can give people the courage to speak up and look out for one another, which is ultimately in the best interests of us all.
Talking helped with my problems. Talking sooner could have helped my dad much faster. And talking openly could have helped prevent my uncle from taking the devastating decision to end his life.