According to a Survey conducted by the National Health Service in 2014, 17% of adults surveyed met the criteria for a common mental disorder (NHS, 2016). So why, then, is mental health still an issue that is spoken so little about?
Mental illness is ‘invisible’ in the physical sense, but for the sufferers like myself it is more visible than my hand in front of my face. This ‘invisibility’ results in a lack of awareness; people gather their information on mental illness from sources that are always trying to portray it in a certain way. For example, a film such as Girl, Interrupted (1999) depicts one of the central characters, Lisa, as a seductress, and her illness is made ‘cool’ by her characterisation. Or, a film or TV show may play up to the stereotypes of mental illness, showing ‘crazy’ people roaming around an abandoned hospital, or a homicidal maniac on the streets of London.
The 30th of March is World Bipolar Day, and is a very important day for me in terms of awareness and the de-stigmatizing of my disease. I took to social media that day to proudly speak about my illness to try and help even one person feel less alone. I merrily logged on to Twitter, assuming to see #WorldBipolarDay in the ‘trending’ section. My expectations were not realised. Scanning through the topics that were trending, my heart sank. #New1DAlbum was third on the list of the most spoken about topics. I will not deny that I was a ‘directioner’ in my youth, and have indeed attended five of their concerts, but the fact that a new (non-existent) album of theirs is more spoken about than a life-threatening disease is truly harrowing. On a ‘normal’ day, this wouldn’t come as a surprise to me, but on a day that is specifically dedicated to bipolar disorder, it was rather a shock. For me, this perfectly highlighted the lack of awareness and conversation around mental illness.
I did receive two messages regarding my post on Facebook from two people that I do not know very well, both thanking me for speaking up. Both told me how they felt isolated in their illness, and scared to talk about it because they have both been stigmatised in the past. Interestingly, one commented that when they were originally diagnosed with depression, “nobody batted an eyelid”, yet as soon as they were diagnosed bipolar, immediately everybody thought they were crazy. This is a fascinating point; do different types of mental illness cause different reactions?
In 2001, a survey was carried out involving individuals over the age of 18 in Germany that lived in private households. The survey was to determine if there were differences in the public assumptions between schizophrenia and major depression. The results included a finding that the emotional responses to schizophrenia tend to be negative, whereas the response to major depression is generally positive. They also found that schizophrenia was associated with danger by the public, and the diagnosis evoked far more fear. (Angermeyer and Matschinger, 2003).
Why is it that different disorders carry different assumptions? Furthermore, why are some disorders ‘easier’ to speak about for sufferers and non-sufferers alike?
As seen through Angermeyer and Matschinger’s 2003 study, schizophrenia carried more negative connotations than major depression. The various campaigns to remove stigma around mental illness commonly centre around depression and anxiety; airtime given to other disorders is minimal in comparison. This is not, in any way, negating depression or anxiety nor claiming that some mental illnesses are more severe than others, merely an observation on the awareness of different disorders. This leads me to another question regarding public perception and ‘selective silence’ between disorders: is it the chicken or the egg? Is it due to the lack of conversation around certain illnesses that lead to negative perceptions? Or is it due to these negative perceptions that the illnesses aren’t spoken about?
1 in 4 people, like me, have a mental health problem. Many more people have a problem with that. – Stephen Fry
The topic of mental illness is still, sadly, very ‘taboo’ (this is clearly a sweeping generalisation, and the stigma has of course lessened gradually over time). Comparing the amount of discussion around mental illness and physical illness shows clearly the ‘hush-hush’ nature from one illness to the other.
Why are people able to talk about physical ailments without feeling uncomfortable, but the topic of mental illness remains to be silenced?