Why don’t we take mental health seriously?
Mental health and psychological well-being does not, and never has received the same level of consideration and respect (not to mention funding) as physical health and fitness. Why?
Is it because there is still a strong stigma attached to having a mental health disorder? Do we not consider neurological diseases to be as ‘real’?
Regardless of the reasons, these damaging attitudes directly impact upon how and if people choose to seek help, making negative opinions and attitudes about mental health potentially dangerous to many individuals.
As up to 1/4 of us may experience some kind of mental health problem within our lifetimes, can we really afford to give it less attention and take it less seriously than our physical health?
And where do our negative attitudes come from? Why isn’t mental health considered as serious or as important as physical health?
I believe that one powerful aspect is the way that we refer to mental health problems in our everyday language. Many people will have used the phrase ‘I’m so depressed today’ when they’ve had a bad day, a break-up or are feeling a bit low. It’s a word that has lost its real impact within society. So when someone is actually suffering from depression, our understanding of how this might feel for them is derived from our day-to-day experience of the word – that is to say, feeling a bit sad and crappy – rather than from knowledge of what depression really is. To perhaps give the biggest understatement of the year, depression is not just feeling a bit sad and crappy. It is a severe and debilitating condition with a neurological cause, and can be treated with behavioural therapies and medication. A similar thing happens in reference to OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) – I’ve known many people to say ‘Oh my gosh, I’m just so OCD!’ because they like to have their shoes in a neat line, or their desk tidy. As is the case for depression, this vastly underestimates the clinical condition, where an individual may spend several hours arranging those shoes for the crippling anxiety that something bad will happen if they get it wrong.
The media is also often less than helpful.
The way mental health is addressed in the media is often inaccurate, sensationalised or it is just completely ignored, depending on the story being run. For example, the media has had a particularly damaging effect on how people with schizophrenia are perceived; schizophrenia is an incredibly complex disorder with a huge spectrum of associated symptoms ranging from hallucinations and involuntary muscle movements to complete loss of emotion and movement. However, schizophrenia is only mentioned in the media following a violent crime if the perpetrator is suffering from the disorder. While in rare cases the disorder may result in violent behaviour, the exaggeration of the disorder when reporting the crime gives the impression that schizophrenic = murderer. And why wouldn’t it? When is schizophrenia ever discussed otherwise? There is an interesting article explaining the association between schizophrenia and murder here, which puts things in perspective when they state “you would be just as likely to be murdered by the American who lives next door, as by the man with schizophrenia opposite and 3.5 times more likely be murdered by the Russian chap who lives down the road.”
We aren’t mind readers, and so the experience of mental health issues is likely to be a mystery to most of us.
We have all felt physical pain; perhaps a strained muscle, a stomach ache or broken bone, and therefore understand the agony and severity of someone else suffering from these ailments. Whereas trouble with mental health can be a much more personal, isolating experience that is difficult to communicate, and isn’t always obvious to other people. Because of this, we also tend to forget that neurological diseases have a biological cause – there may be cell death, unbalanced signalling, and disordered cell communication, to name just a few potential problems. Scientists are dedicated to discovering and understanding the genes and processes that are responsible for mental health problems.
Therefore mental health problems are not something that someone chooses to experience or can just ‘snap out’ of in the same way someone who breaks their leg can’t just ‘run it off.’
The stigma attached to mental health disorders resulting from these attitudes and a lack of understanding leads to those who suffer to feel shameful, which leads to secrecy, which leads to further stigma and misunderstanding. Individuals will refuse to seek help, or will be totally unaware that help is available.
So let’s compare the current attitudes to mental health with a physical problem:
If a woman were to feel a lump in her breast and suspects she may have developed breast cancer, her reaction would be to visit a GP and get the problem treated. She would be far less likely to ‘see how it goes,’ ‘try to snap out of it,’ or just forget about it. She wouldn’t be likely to decline medication because she thinks she can sort it out by herself or would worry what her friends would think or be concerned that she would lose her job.
However these are exactly the responses someone who fears they may be suffering from depression, OCD, anxiety or schizophrenia – all of which can destroy lives as much as cancer can – are more likely to have.
Put this way, doesn’t it seem ridiculous that we as a society don’t discuss mental health more openly and give it the same attention, respect and care as physical health?
How do you think mental health problems are treated in society? What are your attitudes to mental health? Have you experienced any discrimination because of a mental health problem? And importantly, how can we fix it? Comment below!