It is commonly thought that mental health issues such as anxiety disorders or depression are simply ‘first-world’ problems – quirks which overly spoilt adolescents assign to themselves in order to seem more interesting and to explain their own laziness or lack of social nouse. One hindrance in adressing this pernicious misconception is the regrettable modern tendency for hyperbole – “Zayn left One Direction, I’m so depressed,” “She arranges all her pens in colour order, she’s so OCD.” The idea, for many, that someone could be relatively well-off, have statistically good prospects for the future and yet still be utterly disconsolate is simply irritating – giving rise to the endlessly helpful nuggets of advice that are “get over it” and “other people have it worse, you know.”
The reality of being in the extreme range for both anxiety and depressive disorders is, as I know from my own experience, impossible to simply ‘get over.’ To go home and simply lie in bed, contemplating in immense amount of detail the day’s many fuck-ups, to go back the next morning and be pitifully lost for words as to why you’ve done no work, to stay indoors for days on end because to leave the house leaves one open to screwing up even more – these feelings are at times all-consuming. At the onset of what is known as a ‘major depressive episode,’ there is a creeping and unmistakeable feeling of the world closing up around you, of the borders of your vision slowly encroaching upon the centre, and of your internal monologue transforming from a helpful reaction to present events into an in-house critic analysing every minute action. All sense of perspective is lost – every day seems like the worst yet, happiness is an inaccessible memory, the future an incomprehensible concept. And yet on a normal day, when you might tentatively describe yourself as happy, or at least okay, your mind still races – poring over every single mistake, past and present, as if compiling a dossier of your failings to hand to you on your deathbed. You forget what it is like to be ‘in-the-moment,’ as you mentally check whether you have pissed anyone off today – 50 times a second, whilst catching the morning train. In extreme cases of things like OCD (which is not, it transpires, to do with being amusingly tidy), you might even be mentally ensuring that no-one was accidentally killed on your drive home from work.
Any serious examination of how an issue is treated in the political sphere must first begin with how it is treated in other discourse – in popular culture, in the news media, in simple discussions over coffee or beer with people you know. When it comes to mental illness, there are broadly speaking two negative stereotypes – either the sufferer is unbearably self-absorbed, and needs to ‘pull themselves together’ – in the case of someone, say, with a mood disorder – or they are a terrifying danger to us all (think of the stereotypical schizophrenic). There is a minor third category, as well, of diverting freak-show attraction: this is a common conception of people who suffer from Tourette’s, or are compulsive hoarders, and these are the people you are likely to see on a punningly titled Channel 4 documentary. It only becomes clear how hideously inaccurate and unhelpful these characterisations are when compared with the way people deal with physical health problems in public discussion. Granted, the way we talk about physical disability and terminal illness, to take two examples, is still by no means perfect – but can you imagine telling someone with cancer that “it can’t be that bad,” or implying that the illness was in some way their own fault?
These hang-ups around mental health that exist in wider society regrettably and inevitably make their way into political discussion and policy. Mental health problems affect an astounding 25% of people in the UK every year, and yet recieve a pitiful 13% of NHS funding – funding which, despite the best efforts of Norman Lamb, has been cut in real terms every year for the last three years. It is worth emphasing here that many mental health problems, such as bipolar and Major Depressive Disorder are classified medically as morbid conditions. This clarifies one area of the language around discussion of mental health which desperately needs to be addressed – it is helpful to think of suicide in cases of mental illness as someone dying from a disease, rather than being selfish or simply giving up. Another point to note is that mental well-being has a direct and repeatedly proven link to physical well-being, meaning that increased funding for mental health could allow physical problems to be avoided before they cause an extra cost to the NHS. People with severe mental illnesses are for example 3 times more likely to develop a coronary heart disease.
The overall point here is that the negative stigma attached to mental illness doesn’t simply lead to the feelings of the mentally ill being hurt – it directly contributes to the problem. Most people with mental health issues hide them, for fear of others thinking that they are mad, or failing to understand what exactly it is that they’re ‘sad’ about. This leads to an unwillingness to seek treatment and ultimately a worsening of their condition, as stereotypes can be easily internalised, damaging already-weakened self-esteem. The damage that these misconceptions can do when they reach the realm of policy-making is even worse. Mental health is ignored and belittled as inferior to and separate from physical health, and there is a damaging tendency (as, it must be admitted, with many other political issues) towards symbolic over concrete action. The government gave mental health ‘parity with physical health in the NHS constitution,’ whatever that means, all the while cutting support for people whose lives are literally crumbling in front of their eyes as they wait the mandatory 6 weeks to see a specialist.