Like many others I have cared for someone with an illness, an illness that couldn’t be diagnosed by a blood test or a scan. Instead this illness was diagnosed through a secure psychiatric unit. The unit had no shortage of patients, clearly many others were being assessed or treated too. In fact there was a waiting list for beds, only the very worst sufferers received one. For those who weren’t admitted there was a roving mental health team who worked in the local community. I have no idea how many go through the doors of that unit each year nor how many are treated in their homes, but I suspect the number is huge. Despite this how many times do we hear people say my relative or friend is in a psychiatric unit / is being treated by a community mental health team? Or even my relative or friend has had a breakdown, is bipolar, is schizophrenic…I can’t help thinking how refreshing that would be?
It’s strange how comfortable we are talking about someone who is in hospital or receiving medical treatment if their illness is considered ‘normal’. Appendicitis, gallstones, heart trouble whatever physical ailment it is, is fine to discuss. We consistently miss that mental illness is simply another type of illness, like it or not it’s normal too. I understand the difficulty that exists, because when my family were effected I also skirted around the issue. I did my best to avoid questions and discussions. I suppose I was afraid that if anyone probed too deep they would find out that someone close to me suffered from horror of horrors a mental illness.
Mental illness is a subject society deems as taboo, a subject that is seldom discussed. Maybe it’s time we all were a bit more open. When I eventually opened up about my experiences others did too. Like everything in life, it just takes someone to take the first step. It is no wonder that difficulties are faced, when you consider the everyday phrases we use. How many times have you heard someone ask are you mad? Or have you a screw loose? Or call someone a lunatic or a nutter or a sandwich short of a picnic. We are all guilty of saying it but it is when we look at the underlying connotations and view them on a wider level that the phrases stop being humorous. Such phrases inadvertently condition us into perceiving metal illness as something wrong, something to be ashamed off, a joke.
In reality mental illness is just a fact of life. According to the Mental Health foundation (MHF) a staggering one in four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives. So if you haven’t had the misfortune already it is more than likely that you or someone you know will. Illnesses such as depression (and all its alias), schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder right through to anorexia are a small amount of afflictions that are categorised as mental illnesses.
In older times those suffering were put into asylums, never to be discussed, society’s shame. Now we are more subtle, people with mental illness are fine, after all such blatant discrimination doesn’t exist in 2014… Right? Well few people are locked up or hidden away now but few feel that they can be open. I don’t want to bore anyone with statistics, a quick google search and you can see these for yourself, suffice to say that the MHF states that nine in ten suffers say that stigma and discrimination have had a negative effect on their lives. The implication of this is even worse, to me it says for such common conditions there is very little real awareness out there.
Aside from blogging and spending much of my time on social media, by day I work in the community sector. Quite often my work place like many other community organisations will focus on mental health, we signpost people to groups who offer mental health first aid and we run suicide awareness courses. I must point out that we say awareness because prevention isn’t always possible. I will share my experience of arranging suicide awareness workshops as an illustration. Our first few classes had a massive uptake, but each subsequent session saw the numbers reduced slightly. The last course we arranged had no takers. That’s’ right no takers. This is hardly a crime and I accede to that but I could not help but feel disappointed. Awareness is part of our problem, not enough people are aware of the warning signs, what to watch out for, because they think such a situation will never affect them.
Suicide is the one thing that crosses every barrier, it doesn’t care if you’re black or white, rich or poor, catholic, protestant, gay or straight.. NISRA reports that;
‘The number of deaths registered as suicide in 2005 was 213, in 2006 it was 291, in 2007 it was 242, in 2008 it was 282, in 2009 it was 260, in 2010 it was 313, in 2011 it was 289 and in 2012 it was 278’ (source: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency).
We have some amazing groups in Northern Ireland doing their best to work with their local communities and beyond. But to prevent more unnecessary deaths it may be an idea to reinforce their message far and wide. End the complacency, work with our school children, our workplaces and our community representatives and spread the message.
I am loath to place suicide and mental illness in one box, the issues are much more complex. I am aware that depression is the most common illness that leads to suicide. I don’t believe it takes an expert to see that people who are discriminated against because they have an illness would be prone to depression more so than others. The common thread between those who take their lives and those who suffer from mental illness tends to be isolation. Therefore whilst not all mental illnesses lead to suicide, people with them are at an increased risk.
Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. We all have a prejudices but like everything it is about understanding. I will end this piece with a phrase I have heard often ‘there but for the Grace of God go I.’ Mental illness is a fact of life for many, it’s time we accepted it and conditioned ourselves and others on how to address it.