We've come a long way as a society on fighting mental illness. There used to be a time, and maybe there still is in large parts of the world, where depression or anxiety were seen as forms of weakness. They were never taken seriously, never looked at as an illness but just failings on your character make-up.
The idea that money can wash away sadness, or that behind a smiling face isn't a world of pain, got shattered I think by the suicide of Robin Williams. Materialism isn't linked to happiness, it can only buy you distractions. There's this story where someone goes to see a doctor and says they're feeling depressed. The doctor turns around and tells him that a comedian is performing that night and he might feel cheered up if he goes and watches, to which, the patient replies that he is the comedian.
But though we have come a long way, there is still so much to do. On a wider, political level, it's about recognising that mental health is both linked to material insecurity and yet not resolved by material security. Social pressures undoubtedly contribute to mental illness, especially on young children experiencing peer pressure and suffering a deep identity crisis.
For those who suffer from mental illness, understanding what they're going through is the first part of the problem. The second is finding people to talk to. We live in a world where the word "depressed" becomes used to explain feelings related to the mundane everyday experiences rather than a deeper, more serious illness. And the sympathy of people can be limited; after a while there is an expectation on those with mental illness to simply move past their issues. This after all isn't an illness you can visibly see.
Particularly within Muslim South Asian communities, mental illness is dismissed because supposedly all prayers can cure sadness. Depression is regarded as a lack of faith. The low energy and motivation to do anything, the distancing from the things you love, become seen as signs of weak faith. You're told that maybe you're being possessed by evil supernatural spirits, and you're not allowed to scoff at this because you're supposed to believe in this stuff. Within the Muslim world, there are massive cultural barriers regarding mental illness and the scale of how it affects British Asians is not yet fully appreciated by wider society. There are numerous stories within South Asian communities where those suffering from anxiety or paranoia are seen as under supernatural influence, and in addition to being shamed by their family, are subjected to often terrible treatments. No one wants to be seen as having a shortage of faith, yet bubbling underneath remains a growing sadness that, try as we might, a prayer simply won't fix.
Mental illness has been worse for women as there is a huge stigma attached to it. Many have simply been shut off from talking about it, either out of fear of being seen as possessed or what it does for their marriage prospects. A good marriage doesn't simply reflect on them but the family, bringing into the equation, ideas of family honour which is an important tenet in the Muslim and wider South Asian culture. The pressures that family honour create contribute massively to mental illness if it means that women remain trapped in abusive or unhappy marriages to spare their families the apparent shame of divorce. A single mother is seen as a stain on someone else's honour, and those who wish to leave can be threatened into staying. It's also unsurprising that most stories within Muslim families of demonic possession often involve a female victim.
But across wider society, depression is one of the biggest killers of men because the image of masculinity, of ignoring pain, of repressing issues, mean that men bottle feelings up rather than discuss them. "The Office for National Statistics published a report covering the years from 2001 to 2013, showing that suicide among men has reached its highest levels since the early Eighties, rising sharply in 2007 and hitting a peak in 2013." We don't talk about it; we're told to "man up", and that crying is for girls. So we keep it quiet, right up until to the moment some of us can't take it anymore. Depression amongst men is linked to our understandings of masculinity, of patriarchy and feminism. From a young age, boys aren't taught to accept they have feelings, but just made to bury it. We regard feelings and emotions, sadness and grief as feminine concepts and therefore alien to us. And so when young men are forced to handle grief or a difficult period in their life, they simply do not know how to cope with it because society has wired into them a fixed mentality that to talk about issues is to act like a woman. Which is of course, seen as a bad thing. This literally kills.
We need to be a society where those with mental health issues feel confident enough to come forward and discuss their problems, rather than being blamed for either being weak or faithless. Ignoring mental illness simply abandons those suffering from it to lonely, awful lives.
Originally posted in AnotherLenz.