Empty Bedsides: A Speech On Stigma

12/05/2017 16:30
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On the 9th of May I gave a speech on stigma at my university, as a part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2017. The unedited transcript of this speech is what follows here. If you want to see a lecture that says everything that needs to be said about stigma, click here

My bedside was empty. For the most part, everyone's bedsides were empty. It was as though we'd been cordoned off from the world, ostracised like lepers. I'd been sectioned, and clearly it wasn't something people wanted to talk about. If I had broken my leg, or had a concussion, my bedside would be adorned with get well cards, flowers and chocolates. However because I was in hospital for my mental health, there were no get well cards, flowers, or chocolates. The absurdity wasn't lost on me, even in my depressive fog. I'd been in hospital many times for other things, my broken nose, my torn muscles, for various surgeries - and every time, there they were - flowers and cards, unprepossessing and minding their own business. In my mind, there was no difference between me being in hospital for my broken nose and being in hospital for my broken brain. Clearly, the majority of the population disagreed with me, as the empty bedsides of my fellow patients testified to.

What can we do to make sure that no more bedsides are empty? Stigma is immensely complicated, and it's too complicated to go into great detail here. However let me say this. Stigmas lies in fear, a fear fostered and nurtured by misconceptions and inaccurate information being disseminated in the nation's best media outlets. Stigma doesn't occur in a vacuum - we are creatures that consume, that have a ravenous hunger for media. For instance, I found that people often had a perverse and cruel, draconian notion of what psychiatric wards are like, thanks mostly, I suspect, to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Friends of mine who suffer from schizophrenia have reported that the only conception the general population have of their illness is from the film, A Beautiful Mind.

Media, it cannot be denied, is immensely powerful. Over a third of the public think people with a mental health problem are likely to be violent - in fact people with severe mental illnesses are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violent crime. Ten years ago, the Royal College of Psychiatrists surveyed over 2500 people, asking them about their perceptions of depression. Over half said that people with mental health issues were unpredictable, and a quarter said that people with mental health issues were violent. These ideas are largely fostered by misconceptions that are allowed oxygen by an ignorant and misinformed media. Any journalist can call us anything - wacko, nutjob, psycho, unstable, schizo - that simply wouldn't be tolerated if they were aimed at any other marginalized group. Any newspaper in the country can publish remarks that, if they were said of any other minority group, a journalist would immediately lose their job.

50% of mental health issues emerge by age fourteen, and 75% emerge before the age of twenty five. The conservative estimate is that one in four people will suffer from a mental health issue in their lifetime, and this rate is probably higher in young people. Despite the enormity of our numbers, only 1.6% of students disclosed their mental health issues to their university. I know far too many students myself who are silent about their mental health, because of the fear of being penalised. It's a valid concern, and it's one I alone cannot soothe. Despite our enormous numbers, we cannot or will not demand what we need of our lawmakers, and our needs are not being met in party platforms. Such a lack of awareness isn't consistent with the large voting block that we truly are. Mental health should be front and centre in the general election, yet it's being relegated to the side-lines. Stigma keep people silent and people fear coming out due to stigma. Stigma becomes a Gordian knot in which no party comes out unscathed.

As I'm sure many of you are aware, the petition to make mental health education compulsory in primary and middle schools has reached enough signatures to be discussed in parliament. Ireland recently passed a similar measure, implementing mental health education into their curriculum. In their curriculum, pupils receive 300 hours of mental health classes. It's a simple, but unbelievably shattering and staggering strategy. Indeed, when I was in school we covered sexual education and how to write a CV so much that I could have recited the lesson back to front. We never had a lesson on mental health. When I first became depressed at age fourteen, I simply didn't know what was happening to me, I didn't have the language to express how I felt, and I had no knowledge about mental health issues of any kind. If I'd been educated about mental health earlier perhaps things would have been different.

Given today's climate - of perpetual mental health funding cuts, of denial and of recrimination - it is easy to give in to despair; to throw our arms up and scream, what can I do? It's easy to give into apathy. However I want to ask you to do something far bolder - hope.

As I was writing this speech, I came across something extraordinary. I've been taking action to get into schools to talk about my experiences for some time, and things are finally coming to fruition. Up until a few weeks ago, I had one presentation, aimed at older students. However I knew that if it was done right, perceptively and sensitively, then mental health could be brought to primary schools or perhaps even nurseries. I quickly researched the area, expecting to find nothing but a lack of resources, a dry and arid desert. However I was pleasantly surprised. I was inundated with children's books that explained mental health issues, everything from PTSD and depression, to more obscure and misunderstood conditions, such as manic-depression, psychosis or schizophrenia.

Would these books have existed ten years ago? I doubt it. Slowly but surely, progress is being made, even though it may not feel like it at times. You mustn't forget that decades ago, cancer was severely stigmatised, nobody talked about cancer, and in many cases cancer sufferers were kept in the dark about their own cancer status and treatment. Such stigma is simply inconceivably today. It is my belief that mental health will eventually, though not fast enough for my liking, reach this blissful point.

So what can we do about stigma? Firstly, I think we can learn from the LGBT rights movement. In the eighties, nineties and still to this day, people like Harvey Milk urged gay people to come out, so that the heterosexual majority could realize that gay people, rather than being a minority, were all around them. Gay people were their mailmen, their brothers, sisters and aunties. It's something that, I believe, needs to happen in regards to mental health, though if you're liable to lose your job if you disclose your mental health condition, or if you face violence, then this simply isn't feasible.

Secondly, and more importantly, I would say this. Get angry. To be clear, I'm not advocating anarchism. All the great civil rights movements in history - from Ghandi, to Martin Luther King and the AIDS movement - were fuelled by anger. When you learn what to do with anger, you have the keys to social change, to life itself. Channel that despair and anger, and get out there - go to a demonstration, a rally, write letters to the editor, challenge inaccurate media portrayals, get on the soapbox. Many people may tell you to shut up, that you sound like a broken record, that you're beating the drum relentlessly. Even people with their own mental health issues will probably tell you to pipe down. Despite all this, get on the soap box, scream at the top of your lungs about what matters to you until your voice is hoarse, then do it some more. Thank you.