The Blog

What's in Your Head..?

Approximately 450 million people worldwide have some kind of 'mental health problem' right now. And they have really, honestly tried very hard to pull their socks all the way up, and Get Over It.

After the very sad news of the death of Robin Williams last week, there was a predictable - and understandable - slew of articles and discussions about depression and mental health, and the issues around them.

And perhaps the biggest issue that came to light was how woefully badly understood and treated mental health problems still are. A situation that just cannot be considered acceptable any more.

Approximately 450 million people worldwide have some kind of 'mental health problem' right now. And they have really, honestly tried very hard to pull their socks all the way up, and Get Over It.

I'm one of them. (Actually I've had several, from an eating disorder in my teens to panic attacks in my 30s. I have Gold Membership to this club, baby, and while I'm very well and strong right now, and don't hyperventilate when I get in the Underground, I hang on to my Membership number just in case the uninvited guests come back again and trash the party. One never knows.)

You might have a mental health problem. Perhaps you don't even know it. Or the person sitting next to you might. Or your child. Or your partner.

That's the thing with mental illness; it comes in many different guises, and you don't know who has it...or when you might get it.

Most of us have jobs and children and friends; we laugh and go to the gym and look acceptably un-weird when we're in public, so as not to offend people on the bus or miss out on mortgage applications for being 'a bit abnormal' - where 'abnormal' is actually very, very normal; we floss our teeth and watch YouTube videos of cats on skateboards, and put the bins out.

Most of the time we are absolutely FINE.

But sometimes ...we're not. And when that happens - when we feel our minds are no longer quite our own - it's a very frightening feeling.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for mental health is that we can't see it.

We humans like to SEE things. We like proof. Measurements. Graphs.

Even if we have no idea what the graph shows, or if it completely misrepresents the data, it's a GRAPH, honey, so it must be true! LOOK, there's a line, and it's going UP! That is either good, or bad, depending on what the Top Scientists say. But at least it's definitely there.

We can see a broken leg, feel a cut, and measure the size of a cancer tumour. And we know how to go about 'fixing' them. We like fixing things.

We like glue and staples and medicines. We like tangible results, and success. It makes us feel we have some control and power over something.

But we often can't 'see' anxiety, addiction or depression. Their origins are invisible; and so we not only struggle to believe they are there at all...we fear them, just in case they are. Because we have very little idea about how to make them go away. How to fix them.

What works for one person doesn't work for another. And one person's 'Very Bad' is another's 'Pretty Manageable, actually'. There doesn't seem to be any logic or pattern. It defies what we understand as 'fixable'. The staples and the medicines often don't work, when really, we feel they should.

Some people's fear and lack of empathy even extends to total denial that depression exists, and they will quite happily tell a depressive to 'snap out of it and stop being so weak'. Just as one would, of course, say to a cancer sufferer, 'Hey loser, sort it out and stop having that brain tumour, would you??'

There's a frustratingly inexplicable nature to mental health problems, which we struggle to understand.

A strange, confusing contradiction between the outward visible smiles and an inner hidden sadness. Between how logic and upbringing tells us we should feel, given our circumstances, and how we perhaps do.

These are concepts too alien and baffling for those who have never experienced them...but horribly familiar and frightening for those who have, or still do. And then there are still those who talk about a 'choice'. As if there really is one, to someone who stopped being able to think or behave rationally years ago.

And so, amidst all the outpourings of sadness and support this week, there have, as ever in these situations, been the blamers.

Those who still see mental illness in general, and depression and addiction in particular, as a selfish, weak thing that one would avoid if one Jolly Well Tried Hard Enough.

To the blamers, and to those who still don't understand the power or nature of mental illness, I say this:

Just as it is not selfish to die of cancer, so it is not selfish to die of depression.

The illness, and its associated exhaustion and pain, is what kills.

One might even argue that it's selfish of anyone to ask a person so deep in misery and sadness and pain, to have to keep living through this, day after day after day, simply to keep the rest of us happy. To live a life they find unbearable, so that we don't have to be sad, or feel that we have failed them in some way.

There is a perhaps a selfishness there, which is worth thinking about.

But there is, and must always be, hope. Hope that there is a positive change around the corner. Because just as mental health problems can arrive unexpectedly, so they can leave that way too.

More than anything, we must carry on talking, listening, learning and teaching, until we have completely changed the face of mental heath forever, understand it for what it is, no longer fear or deny it, and treat it the way it needs to be treated.

None of us can ever know when it will come knocking on our door, and how we will deal with it.

We can just hope that if it does, we will live in a society that knows what it is, and how to help us.

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