Sheila, June 22, 2016

I work in mental health. I also have a diagnosis of bipolar, and long-standing problems with depression, and anxiety. A frequent topic of conversation with both friends, and service users, is whether their own family, friends and colleagues 'get' mental health.

We've all been around people who don't understand that feeling a bit down is not the same thing as clinical depression; that the heart-in-the-mouth, fingernails-on-the-ceiling feeling of anxiety is not the same as being a bit worried about something, and that bipolar is a whole lot more than experiencing a few common mood swings. 

At best, it's disappointing when the people we see day-to-day don't get mental health problems. At worst, it's just piling problems on top of our already existing ones.

Of all the shocks that came with my diagnosis of early stage breast cancer, one of the most distressing was the conversation which took place in the local clinic in the run up to my day surgery appointment. I never would have guessed that a medical discussion about cancer would bring me head-bangingly against blatant cases of mental health stigma.

The medical team told me my right breast would be sore and swollen for a while after the operation, then asked questions about what I do. When I said I work in mental health, and that I planned to work as much as possible during the course of my treatment, they then asked whether this was a good idea, because what if someone attacked me?

I didn't swear, but I wanted to. Instead, I said that the service users are far more likely to harm themselves than me. The biggest likely threat to my post-op, still poorly body was if a client hugs me. I then heard the same thing, a day or two later, from another person. The bit about being attacked, not hugging.

I can count on the fingers of my non-existent third hand, the number of times a client with mental health problems has attacked me. I have been hugged a number of times, including a few days after this particular conversation.

It's bad enough when the general public stigmatises people with mental health problems, but medical professionals? Disappointing doesn't even begin to describe it.

And yet they didn't bat an eye when I told them I had bipolar, or talked about my medication. One of the nurses at my pre-op appointment did blanch a bit during a discussion of a long ago suicide attempt – and yes, it was relevant. I can only assume I didn't come across to that particular medical team as the sort of person with mental health problems who – in their eyes, that is – is likely to be aggressive.

How long will it take to get across the message that the typical person with mental health problems is more likely to be attacked by someone than to attack someone else? Or to harm themselves, rather than harm someone else?

Judging from my experience just last month, the fight against mental health stigma continues to be a necessary and worthwhile cause. And some of the people you'd least expect to, still 'don't get it'.

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