There is something unsettling about the ambiguity of mental health. The brain is of course steeped in mystery; a complex organ we have less understanding of than any other organ in our body, the core to one of life’s greatest mysteries – life itself. Fear often always follows the unknown, the misunderstood and from experience fear has always followed mental health.
Dangerous, unpredictable – they were traits that seemed synonymous with mental health issues when I was growing up. The idea being that, at the mention of someone suffering from a mental health condition, they were to be avoided. When I was in my late teens, I remember sitting in a pub when a gentleman came up to my friend and I. He was drunk, cheerful and a little creepy, but not at all threatening. We spoke, he left soon after and the conversation continued until we were approached again; this time by a woman, with a warning that the man was a schizophrenic and we should stay away.
I am ashamed to admit that at the time I felt fear. Though my thoughts were less influenced by the warning and more by the false beliefs I held; perceptions cultivated by a family rife with mental health issues but too ashamed and afraid to fully acknowledge or accept their existence. For mental illness has been a dark creature forever present in my life. Most of my family suffer, and now I do. None of us wished to acknowledge it, discuss it, even when diagnoses were made, hospitalisations required, and chaos reigned. I have been fortunate to have not suffered issues that have taken me too far from reality, no psychosis or delusions, but coming to terms with what I’m going through was less about knowing and more about accepting.
However now that I begin to accept what is essentially a very large part of who I am, the more I realise the next problem is other people; their acceptance, the level of their comprehension, how it is they interpret the issues I face and their willingness to understand. Recently, I’ve been unfortunate to find that discussing my depression and anxiety leaves some people to believe that I am capable of the worst possible things – the idea being that a mental health issue equates to being dangerous. It is a sad fact, but arguably many us are still the product of an era that presented and still presents, though to a lesser degree, those with mental health problems as such. Films like Psycho (1960), Hannibal Lector (1986), American Psycho (2000) and The Visit (2017) for example, depict mental health symptoms in an exaggerated and misrepresented manner, blurring the line between reality and fiction and distorting the public’s view of a complex and often unfamiliar subject.
We are an excellent source of horror – monsters wrapped in human skin, hidden among the masses – capable of being your neighbour, best friend or lover one minute and the next your killer. It’s a thrilling tale but perhaps not the most accurate. In fact, research has strongly suggested for a while now that mental health is not a precursor to an increased risk of violence, it is our socio-economic status, our gender, our lifestyles and age that strongly influence those factors. Any example where mental health has been described as an influence should only inspire and exemplify the importance of acknowledging, understanding and being aware of our own, as well as our loved ones, mental health. By doing so, we create a defence, a barrier the illness must break through. We see the changes, we recognise when support is needed and if all fails and we lose ourselves or the ones we love, there is help available to bring them or ourselves back.
Without understanding, it is easy to judge an illness by the stereotypes that surround us. It is even easier to assign negative behaviours to the person and not the symptoms. We are more likely to confuse and upset the ones we love. We will get it wrong and act in a way that is beyond comprehension for most - but unless we are entirely down the rabbit hole, we are still us, and we’re fighting a war to be.