We've come a long way in recent times in our ability to talk about mental health. Increasingly people are able to admit when they're struggling, to realise that they need help, and we're slowly, albeit too slowly for my liking, chipping away at the stigma that surrounds mental illness. But then something like this pops up.
I came across this poster just last week in a GP waiting room, and have to admit I was shocked, and so incredibly disappointed. I thought when I sat down to write this that it would be easy, I've certainly given it considerable thought in the days since I first saw it. Honestly though, the more I look at this image, the more confused I am about where to even begin with all that's wrong with it and all that it implies.
Let's take the obvious one. Depression is classed by Pfizer, a major multinational who carry huge influence, as an 'embarrassing problem'. I've blacked out the other issues they've included on this list as depression is the only one I'm in a position to comment on, but suffice to say, none of them should be considered embarrassing. How is this helpful? I've been very open about my mental health issues for quite some time, and I still felt a pang of shame when I saw this. An embarrassing problem is something that you hide, right? Something that you don't want people to know about for fear of being laughed at, judged, ridiculed. So by extension, the problem itself is shameful. It is this very belief that has caused so many people to struggle for far, far longer than necessary over the years.
I get the sentiment behind the poster. I think. Yes, depression is incredibly difficult to talk about, as is any mental illness, and yes, a lot of people are still intensely ashamed of being depressed, so it could be argued that the poster is trying to speak to these people, and encourage them to reach out for help. I'd like to think that's what they were going for. Then of course there's the cynical view. Have an embarrassing problem? We have a pill for that! Call me naive but I'd like to think that's not what they were going for.
I'm by no means anti-medication, it's one of a combination of treatments that has kept me alive over the years, and I continue to take psychiatric medication. But this kind of marketing is profoundly unhelpful. What if they had just had a list of difficult problems? Wouldn't that make it even a little more socially acceptable?
I think what really bothered me about this poster, quite apart from describing depression as 'embarrassing', is the fact that it demonstrates once more just how far we have to go before we're able to accept that mental illness is just that, an illness. When we talk about physical illnesses, we don't describe them that way, we just name the illness and that's that. So why does it have to be different with mental illness? Do we really need two distinct categories? We are our body and our mind, the two can't be separated. What affects one, affects the other.
I would love to believe that we are on the road to a future where that distinction is no longer relevant, but it is going to be such a long journey. We've made a good start, there's no doubt about that, but mental health needs to stay on the agenda until it becomes just health. We need to get to a point where it's as easy to say 'I have depression' as it is to say 'I have the flu'. I realise that what I'm hoping for is a monumental cultural mindshift but just think - thirty years ago cancer was spoken about in whispers and behind closed doors. And now? It's just part of life. A difficult one, but a part of it nonetheless, and one that can't be ignored. Hopefully it won't take another thirty years to bring about the same change for mental illness.
This post first appeared here.