On 7th October I spoke at the 2nd Asia Pacific Conference on mental health in Singapore, they are doing incredible work over there. Mental health is a global crisis and in Asia the stigma is endemic. New reports of the declining mental health of our young are alarming; globally with the many conflicts that rage the mental health of those trapped in war torn regions is precarious. In Indonesia some mentally ill patients are placed in private institutions where they are chained together even though the practice is outlawed by the Indonesian government; in Bangladesh I have witnessed the mentally ill crawling on their hands and knees with matted hair, half naked; in London and Brussels I see them talking out loud, often homeless. They are ubiquitous and I cannot ignore them, since I am part of the club, diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, not on medication and without a mental health team.
In my own case being in a new country can be stressful. The one thing that helps is cycling, but the management committee has banned me from cycling for 15 minutes per day in the compound I am staying in - unanimously. It seems ludicrous, despite two doctors' letters explaining why I need to cycle for the endorphins, the fresh air and my mental health. Imagine taking away someone's wheelchair and expecting them to walk? Imagine taking away someone's medication and expecting them to function? Being told that I cannot cycle has been a blow and sent me in mild panic, do I go back on the roads where there are no cycle lanes and it's dangerous, or in the car park where the fumes are rank and the air putrid?
But I don't just need my bicycle for endorphins. To go down to the play area and face the other mothers has always been stressful, I hide behind my glasses and a big hat, and my bike is part of my armour, my crutch, my support. The children are happy, they play, I circle nearby at a safe distance on my bike, mentally feel better and get through another day. Without my bike I physically can't go to the playground. I feel for my kids, I try and explain but they are aged 3 and 5, it's hard for them to understand. Will I muster up the courage and go down without my bike, start to feel stressed, anxious and just want to hide behind a bush? I am not sure what to do, perhaps I need to be brave for the sake of my children but it won't be easy.
Me on my bike photo take by Laurence Edney, 2009 just months before my first psychotic episode
As I deal with a complex mental health condition on my own, but still find I am being impeded, imagine someone who is struggling, who needs support with basic things like washing, eating, brushing their teeth... there have been days when I cannot move from my bed, but I find a way to keep the engine of my broken mind running - somehow. That's what we have to do because we will always face obstacles that appear insurmountable.
In war torn regions people are being denied the basics: food, water, education, shelter, safety; their minds are under siege - death is the norm, and for those that survive they are in constant fight or flight mode. Yet despite the relentless onslaught of bombs in countries like Syria and Yemen communities support one another and share what little they have. Through compassion minds can be rebuilt, just as cities and homes and lives can be. When isolated and fighting your battles and demons alone people can hit a brick wall and despair.
Despite the advances of technology where people are connected, young people are more disconnected than ever before from real community links because they are sucked into online virtual worlds where there are bullies and peer pressure, it's become another playground except it is a global one where the benchmark is to have millions of Instagram followers and achieve the unattainable. And even the basics that people aspire towards: a job, a home, a family - seems more elusive as the young are forced to stay at home, saddled with debt, unable to find long-term well paid jobs. All over the world we are seeing lost generations.
The erosion of community, global destabilisation through war, migration, economic uncertainty, the pernicious aspects of the internet, I could go on, but none of it bodes well for a mentally healthy global society.
What can be done?
My mission statement is Mental Health 4 All our citizens, if I pass on the knowledge I have gleaned about my mental health, this can be passed onto someone else and a domino effect ensues. In addition I am creating a vast online resource of art, poems, plays, songs, blogs, essays, books, films related to mental health that people can access.
If every individual who has some mental health knowledge does this we can tackle this epidemic head on and work in tandem with mental health professionals around the world.
We can also learn from the work other countries are doing in Singapore and Hong Kong where there are innovative initiatives encouraging the mentally ill to get back into work. They are investing heavily in mental health projects that encourage the reintegration of the mentally unwell into society.
I just finished a scroll working with severely mentally ill patients in Malaysia, created for World Mental Health Day, this scroll documents the internal landscape of the patients and working on it was a positive experience. My vision is to create scrolls with mentally ill people all over the world. At the conference I spoke to representatives from Hong Kong and Singapore, leaders in mental health provision, and they expressed an interest in working with me. It's exciting.
Detail from Soul on a Scroll (mixed media on 30-foot piece of paper, 2012)
Even though the UK government is investing in mental health I think the scale of the problem is such that there will always be people who slip through the net, but we still have to reach them all and keep fighting, explaining and trying to make the world understand that mental torment is real, debilitating and can destroy lives without proper support. Sometimes just a little help can go a long way.
Mental Health 4 All our global citizens - especially teaching mental health to our young providing them with the tools to cope with the rigours of our fast paced world - that's what we must work towards.