He looks at my crutches in disgust and mutters to his friend something that I’m sure is an insult to match his expression. His friend, maybe more confident or maybe more of a tosser, I can’t tell, loudly mocks my plastered leg that’s sticking out at it’s odd angle off the seat on which I’m sat. Something about it being “embarrassing mate”. “A total joke”. I feel so ashamed I don’t even reply and as I limp off I can still hear the laughing which takes me back to being at school, that time when I broke my arm and the whole assembly laughed when I walked into the hall that day.
My cousin told me something similar happened to her last week. She was sat at her desk at work when her body went all tingly, a familiar pre-warning to one of her hypo diabetic episodes. She knew she hadn’t been eating well that week. She didn’t really want to disrupt her colleagues, and she’s such a workaholic anyway, she just carried on typing until she couldn’t take it any more. When she slunk off to the kitchen where she keeps her glucose tablets, her boss walked past and sneered. She actually made out like my friend, the one who stays late when she hasn’t hit a deadline, the one who has given up holidays to cover other people’s, was skiving beyond her lunch break. Before my friend could open her mouth to explain that it’s just her condition and once she’s stabilised her hypo she’ll make up the time, her boss just tutted, turned on her heel and threw in a comment about a disciplinary for timekeeping.
And get this, my best friend’s dad was spat at in the street when he suffered a heart attack aged just 40. Spat at?! I couldn’t believe it at first. He has a family history of heart problems anyway, and yeah he liked the odd bacon roll (who doesn’t?!) but he did look after himself. He literally went shopping for some plant seeds for his allotment and on his way back just collapsed outside the garden centre. The paramedics said if it wasn’t for the one person who eventually stopped and called them, he’d have almost certainly died. He’s okay now, recovering and awaiting more surgery I think, but it still scares my friend that if he has one again and they’re not around, who’s going to help him in time?
Luckily, I’ve just made up the above scenarios. Luckily, none of them have happened to anyone I know. If they did I’m almost certain I’d have read a scathing condemnation of the protagonists in my local or national newspaper. And some of you may have even guessed by now where I’m going with this. All of those examples are beyond what we expect a normal or caring reaction to a physical affliction or illness to be. Way beyond. So to the crux of my point. Why do we treat an illness of the mind differently to any other organ, limb or part of the body?
I’ve never heard an employer tell someone who is off sick with gastroenteritis to “pull themselves together”, when they’re white as a sheet and running to the toilet every two seconds until the bug has passed. I have however, heard that phrase used whenever someone opens up about their bouts of anxiety or depression. No mater how all encompassing or fleeting they may be.
I’ve never heard someone tell their friend to “keep it quiet” about being blind. Told them to take the guide dog offered to help them but do it discretely. Told them to use the white stick if it helps but you know, if you can, don’t become dependent on it. I have however watched people be told to keep their lifelong or severe mental illness like bi polar or schizophrenia under wraps. To make sure they take their tablets but do it subtly so no one can see what you’re taking. To go to therapy and talk about it but you know, if you can, don’t become dependent on it. To chin up and smile, as if that ever cured a blind man or woman, but it can apparently cure depression.
I find it incomprehensible that in this day and age when we’ve come so far in our understanding of all things human, we still have a stigma around a mental illness. Because that’s all it is. Another illness. Like the many illnesses and diseases we happily raise money for, do our fun runs for and fund research into curing. Today our prime minister laid out her plans and thoughts for helping those who suffer with mental health in this country and that’s great. But I do question whether it will really touch all the lives it needs to? Will she look at the years and years of underfunding and lack of education around mental health and make real financial and kick start social changes? (E.g in schools and hospital wards). Will she and the MPs she works with actually make sure the benefits system and work programmes make provisions for those who find society hard to navigate when they can’t earn money the same as their peers? Will she try her hardest to do that? Time will tell and I can only hope she does. But I’m sceptical and will continue to be until I see real change. Politicians have a habit of talking about a topic more than they form action plans to help. Actions really do speak louder than words.
So at local levels, and most definitely on personal levels, we all need to do all we can. Our children are distressed in a way we’ve never known. Our family and friends could be the ONE in FOUR of us that are suffering right now. Suicide is the biggest killer of young and middle aged men. That scares me. That could be my future partner or son or my best friend. The way cancer has killed members of my family, mental illness has almost taken them in the same way, and has definitely taken the lives of so many other people we will never get to meet.
Something’s got to give and I really hope it gives before it’s too late. It’s one of the biggest public health issues to exist today and I firmly believe that. I don’t have all the solutions and I don’t think our government do either. But we have to do what we can. If you ever need to talk about something you’re going through or ask advice about anything at all then please talk to someone you trust, a helpline, even me! Talk to someone. There’s some great hashtags on twitter too that really open the dialogue up and bring people together. I highly recommend them! There’s #TalkMH and #TalkingAboutIt, and I’m sure there’s more too. However you’re feeling I just want everyone to know, you’re not alone.
I mentioned cancer earlier and it’s a stark comparison to make I know. But as someone whose family has been hit by both, I can honestly say they have both affected me just as profoundly. Just because one illness is physical or shows up on scans, doesn’t make it any more life altering than the other. I often think if we treated those with mental health the same as we do those with terrible illnesses like a cancer, we would be one step closer to finding the cures and treatments for BOTH.