Ignorance and a lack of empathy are responsible for most of the world’s ills, but they are at their most insidious when it comes to how we treat those with mental health issues.
People get uncomfortable when I’m open about my bipolar , as though speaking candidly about my mental health was violating some unspoken pact. It’s a form of discrimination subtler than most. It presents itself in smiles and soft patronising voices, in stock phrases such as “Cheer up!”, and “It could be worse.” The truly sad thing, though, is that these reactions often come from a warped attempt at kindness – people earnestly trying to do the right thing but having no idea how to achieve it.
The fact that Prince Harry was praised for seeking help for his own issues speaks volumes about how mental health is viewed in this country. It was a brave and generous thing for him to publicly admit, but it shouldn’t have to be. It should be something that is as routine as having any other illness, for which you would go to your GP for treatment. Accessing help should be as easy too. But it isn’t.
I know from personal experience just how hard it can be to get help. It took me weeks of jumping through hoops simply to get on a waiting list for an assessment of whether I was suitable to go on a waiting list to receive help. If it sounds convoluted that’s because it is. The Kafkaesque nightmare of navigating bureaucracy when you are so ill that you’re thinking about killing yourself is a hell I wouldn’t wish on anyone – and yet it’s a hell many go through daily.
In the last five years alone, mental health trusts in the UK have had £600m cut from their budgets while the number of people seeking help for mental health-related issues has leapt from 500,000 a year 2010 to 1.7 million.
Instead of pumping billions into projects such as Trident we could redirect that money to help those most in need. What’s the point in weapons to deter attacks if our own people kill themselves anyway because they can’t get access to the help they need?
We should have state-funded mental health clinics, in the same way and with the same everydayness, that dentist’s surgeries exist. We consider trips to the dentist to be part of our regular health routine, catching tooth decay early to curb further problems down the line. Yet we don’t have the same attitude or ease of access when it comes to our mental health – something that is, arguably, far more important.
It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare navigating bureaucracy when you are so ill that you’re thinking about killing yourself
Imagine free counselling provided by trained specialists, actively encouraged by government initiatives. You could schedule “checkups”, with more frequent sessions before the age of 30 (your 20s being the period during which most mental health issues present themselves.) Not only would this mean catching potential problems before they had the chance to threaten an individual’s wellbeing. It would make getting counselling seem as mundane as brushing your teeth, and the stigma around mental health issues and seeking help for them would diminish.
The issue of accessible care aside, it is that stigma that is one of the main challenges I and many others face day to day when it comes to mental health. It’s hard enough to deal with the anxieties, self-loathing and sense of worthlessness depression brings, let alone feeling that you have to face those problems alone for fear that your friends, family and employers won’t understand what you’re going through.
As with many things, though, the route to understanding is through education. In March the government announced plans to trial mental health training in around 200 schools across the UK. But while this is a huge step in the right direction, it isn’t enough.
For universal change, universal education is needed, so every school should teach a mental health class with its importance placed as highly as any of the core subjects. After all, knowing what a surd is has never at any point in my adult life been of even the vaguest use. However, had I been taught what bipolar was, I might have been able to recognise it in myself before I had my first breakdown.
Classes in mental health would teach children about a multitude of illnesses – not just those that get media attention, such as depression and anxiety, but much misunderstood illnesses such as schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder.
Being taught not only what these illnesses are but how they affect people, and their symptoms and potential triggers, would help children recognise warning signs in themselves and others. Couple this with classes in mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy and basic counselling skills (listening being the main focus), and you cultivate an environment in which having a mental illness is not stigmatised but normalised.
Perhaps the most important aspect, though, is that children would be given a toolbox of techniques in which to aid their own mental wellbeing. When you suffer from an illness such as bipolar, unfortunately, you are your own primary care giver, and looking after yourself and having the courage to seek help when you need it is tremendously hard.
I can’t think of anything more valuable than giving future generations an education and mindset that helps them not only battle their own demons but be better equipped to help others fight theirs.