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Everyone knows someone who is in mental distress

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Professor Jim Lucey Medical Director of St Patrick's Mental Health Services. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

Professor Jim Lucey Medical Director of St Patrick's Mental Health Services. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

Professor Jim Lucey Medical Director of St Patrick's Mental Health Services. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

Over the past 25 years the most compelling lessons I have learned have come from my patients. These men and women are the real mental health experts and their words are authentic because they speak from personal experience as they travel on their road to recovery.

The word patient signifies one who is suffering, but these experts can teach us all an even bigger truth. We will all be patients at some stage. That is why the alienation of those with mental distress is so harmful and so unjust. The experience of this injustice is what we call stigma.

Whether stigma is overt or covert, external or internal, its effect is the most harmful aspect of the experience of mental suffering. It is a silent exclusion and patients feel it as an additional wound.

Everybody knows someone who is in mental distress. Every family on this island has someone with a mental health problem right now, and one in four of us will have a mental health problem at some stage in our lifetime. In our hearts each of knows that this distress is real, but most of us never talk about it.

We skirt around the issues of mental health. We act as if "least said is soonest mended". This silence about an aspect of our real human experience appears at odds with the perennial public debate on mental health issues which rumbles on, often stoked by the historical disputes between differing factions within mental healthcare.

These disagreements between proponents of biological treatments or enthusiasts for social remedies or advocates for various psychotherapies may be as bitter as those between warring zealots.

In all of this noise, in my experience, the people who really matter find it hard to get a hearing. That's the real tragedy. People with mental distress want to be heard.

Listening to patients teaches us that mental suffering does not define any person. In truth mental disorder is most frequently episodic and frequently it can be resolved. It is not limited to any particular group in our society. It occurs in men and women of every economic group, every sexual orientation and every race, and it is experienced as real pain.

Our mental health is the biggest unmet challenge of our age. Depression is the largest single cause of illness across Europe.

Yet despite the scale of the problem the average delay in seeking help for people with these common and treatable mental health problems is more than ten years, and three quarters of adults with mental health problems experienced symptoms before they reached the age of 25.

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Why is there such a delay? Why are so many years of distress experienced by so many? The reason is this. People with mental distress and disorder suffer silently because they believe no one will listen to them.

Huge progress has been made in mental health awareness. Greater focus has led to greater openness about depression and anxiety. But much more needs to be done.

We need a culture of mental health in which we can communicate the reality of recovery more effectively. Building this culture of mental health begins with a conversation and a willingness to listen to each other.

When the men and women in my room asked me to write about their distress they wanted an account that truthfully reflected their experience. Their voice is paramount since through these stories they reveal that recovery is possible.

New strides in treatment and psychotherapy and mindfulness mean that effective recovery happens every day. People with mental distress can learn to live and love and work again. The expectation of recovery is not just a wish, it is a right. If we made our mental health a priority we could begin to build a new culture of real mental wellness.

The patients who revealed their stories 'In My Room' said they did not want to be let down. They wanted to be heard. We can listen and learn from them. Once we start the conversation we will begin a journey to personal and national recovery.

Dr Jim Lucey Medical is Director of St Patricks Mental Health Services and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin. His new book 'In My Room; The Recovery Journey as Encountered by a Psychiatrist', is published by Gill and Macmillan.

www.InMyRoom.org.uk #Talkmental


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