What if we treated mental illness like we did physical illness?
Imagine an individual with severe flu and some people responded as they would do to a mental health issue:
“Why don’t you just try…not having the flu?”
“How come you are not normal like everyone else?”
“It’s just a phase, it’ll pass”
“I don’t think its right to take so much medication for your flu. Go out, socialise and exercise, that will make you better”
“Just change your frame of mind and things will change”
Sadly these common responses to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or self harm are not the result of insensitivity but rather lack of understanding. Hospital trained-Chaplain Diane Weber Bederman condemns these kinds of reactions. She compares a man who crashes his car due to a heart attack but kills people in the process to a man who shoots people whilst suffering from an acute psychotic break. Her diagnosis, ‘In truth, neither one is to blame for their illness or the tragic unpredictable event’. Bederman believes less sympathy will be held for those experiencing mental health issues who then harm others as a result of their problems ‘”Mental” illness drags behind it a heavy bag of ignorance and confusion that has led to the stigma of shame and prejudice for those with the illness as well as their families, and continues to promote fear in the public square.’ Indeed high profile cases in recent years can be seen to fuel people’s fear of the mentally ill and hinder understanding.
Nick Watts a campaigner against eating disorders who recently spoke at a school, was shocked at the responses he received when asking students opinions on self harm. A student’s response, “Self Harm, but no-one here worries about that, only stupid people do it.” This lack of empathy particularly amongst young people worryingly delays help for self harm due to the lack of education on self harm and other cases of mental illness. Watts is adamant ‘We should be working with our young people to bring up a generation that understands the complexities of these issues and can have these difficult discussions openly’.
According to a study, we generally get our impressions of mental health and what they are, for instance, depression, anxiety and stress as they are more widely known as it is universally believed everyone experiences them. Suicide and attempted suicide on the other hand, tend to be more widely known through the media and its large coverage of teenage suicide for example. Precipitators such as the media and school are therefore the common possible roots to helping those who self harm through information and facts on mental health and re-education.
It may also be important to take into account cultural context. Brandon Knettel a doctoral student in counselling psychology observed the differing attitudes to mental health in non western countries such as Tanzania. For instance, due to poverty, diseases such as malaria take priority before attention can be drawn to mental health issues. Interestingly however, those who experience severe mental health issues are more visible in Tanzania, whilst those with such diagnoses in Western countries are not as visible as they tend to reside in hospitals and treatment facilities. Knettel acknowledges this cultural divide and concludes “Oftentimes, rather than try to understand the cultural discrepancy, we’ll immediately try to solve everything as if it is a Western problem requiring a Western solution.”
We cannot tackle the issue of self harm and mental health without a clear understanding of the distinction between visible and invisible health problems. Just because we cannot see it does not mean it is not a priority, as Bedeman warned in her previous example with the contrasting diagnoses.
It is noticeable that the BBC and ITV have just recently started to encourage the general public to simply talk to someone that they suspect of mental ill health. Talk to them about their condition rather than avoid them. Just talk to them! Maybe next time someone opens up about self harming behaviour more people will respond with sensitivity and understanding rather than refusing to take it seriously until we ‘see’ the scars.