Sunday 15 September 2019

Time to drop myth of the raving lunatic

Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

I'M HOPING none of my neighbours is reading this. Because, according to a study just published, one in five of them feel that they should be protected from me.

And a quarter of them think I should not be allowed to do "important jobs", ie train as a doctor or a nurse etc. If they were in the same situation as me, two thirds of them say that they would keep the matter as quiet as possible because of the intolerable shame they would feel.

So, what on earth is wrong with me? Am I a mass murderer? A husband beater, a child molester or drug dealer? Sorry to disappoint, but the truth is rather more mundane. I occasionally suffer from depression. Sometimes I have even been prescribed medication for this anti-social condition. Especially during the dark winter months when I begin to believe that I was a squirrel in a former life and should just stay in my burrow until spring arrives.

Suffering any type of mental illness is a right pain the neck. Vigilance and knowledge are the keys: watching the signs, making sure you don't allow yourself to get too stressed, too run-down or too negative; knowing when medication is needed in order to get to a stage when recovery is possible.

But the biggest pain canbe knowing who to tell. "Where have you beenthese last few months?", beamed a friend the otherevening. "We thought youhad fallen off the planet." "Oh, I just like to hibernate during the winter," I answered. "It's too miserable to do anything else."

Which is a partial truth, except of course that it's me who is too miserable to do anything else. Except at 4am when I awake with dry mouth and racing heart, conscious of some terror my brain will not articulate. But the majority of people I know would scoff at the thought that a successful colleague of theirs suffers from a mental illness. And many people refuse to believe that depression is a fatal illness if left untreated.

"Oh, we all get depressed," is a comment I hear ad infinitum. "Go for a walk, buck yourself up, think happy thoughts." Wearily I try to explain the difference between unhappiness and clinical depression. In most cases, I am talking to a brick wall.

There is still a stigma against taking medication for it. "Surely you don't need to take those tablets?" I'm repeatedly told. "Well, only if I don't want to end up suicidal."

"You're exaggerating, things aren't that bad." Tell that to a person suffering from depression, because that's the whole point: without intervention, it is that bad.

Imagine if people despised a person with a broken leg who took painkillers to ease the pain? That's what it's like when a person with a mental illness is told they don't need medication. Imagine if you suffered from diabetes and had to conceal the fact that you needed to take insulin from colleagues and friends? This is precisely what many mentally ill people have to do if they are on medication. This is also why many people who suffer from mental illness ignore it until it becomes so acute tragedy occurs.

Yes, in many cases cognitive therapy is what a person needs but sometimes to get to the stage where it will be effective, medication is required.

Last week, a girl I know - highly educated, spiritual and kind - revealed to me that she thought "character weakness" was the cause of most mental illness. She is not alone. Last month's Mental Health Awareness and Attitudes Study (by the National Office for Suicide Prevention, NOSP) revealed people believe that one in 10 suffers from mental illness. The true statistic is actually one in four but most sufferers keep it quiet. Two thirds of people surveyed said if they had a mental illness they would keep it a secret. I mean, would you want your neighbours/friends/ boss thinking you had a "character weakness"? Or were a "mentler"?

When I said I was writing a piece on mental health this week some well-meaning friends were concerned; "But surely you're not going to talk about yourself? People might get the wrong idea and think there's something wrong with you." A pharmacist I know scoffed that it was "all in the mind" when I went to him for anti-depressant medication. "Well it certainly isn't in my knees," I retorted.

The only physical illness which seems to have the same social stigma is TB. Mental illness isn't contagious but it is rampant in society whether we like to admit to it or not.

In Britain, social economist Richard Layard (Happiness: Lessons from a New Science) has advised the Government to invest in a network of 250 treatment centres to offer psychological therapy to the public. He said, "If people have a persistent physical illness like asthma, blood pressure or skin disease they automatically see a specialist. But not so if they suffer the torment of mental illness. There are two reasons for this neglect. One is stigma and the other is an extraordinary delayed response to the fact that we now have treatments that work, which we did not have 50 years ago."

In a society where 'happiness' is the catchword for a successful life, mental health sufferers are statistically the unhappiest in any community, much more so than the impoverished. In a recent report, 86 per cent of Irish people rated their quality of life as good but this fell to 64 per cent among those who have experienced mental problems. Richard Layard has called it "our biggest social problem".

This month, the National Office for Suicide Prevention at the Health Service Executive begins a nationwide campaign for a more tolerant attitude toward mental illness.

Mental health problems are real, very common, and it is of paramount importance that they are talked about, says NOSP. The head of NOSP, Geoff Daly, has said that the survey was a warning that significant levels of stigma still exist. "There is a huge need to educate the people of Ireland about mental health," he said. "The reality is that many of us can, and do, experience mental health problems."

The man speaks the truth. I know. I am one of those people who would probably be dead if I ignored my illness. Unfortunately, there are many others who, due to the social stigma, did ignore their illness and have died for it.

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