Yes, we need to have a conversation about mental health. This week, my colleagues at the New Statesman are doing just that. They are shamelessly plundering the sanctuary of their innermost being in the name of awareness.
Seasoned journalists and writers have problems too. We are unashamedly human. Perhaps, I suggest, that is what makes writing powerful and authentic. Sometimes, it feels easier to bear your soul to an audience of thousands than to three friends who are in the same room. Quite paradoxical really isn’t it?
But this paradox is a crucial one in our understanding of mental health, how we codify it, and understand it, and experience it for ourselves. Or even mental non-health too.
You see, in the media, we are often presented with mental health gone wrong. The thin end of the wedge. Man commits suicide. Girl dies of eating disorder. Or even as I walked through the Underground the other day “delays due to person under train” declared the PA system.
What I was left thinking though was:
“Why is that person under the train? How did they get there? What drove them to that?”
I believe it is those searching questions we need to ask much more. We need to be more inquisitive, talk less and listen more.
Why? Simply because, that is what people with mental health problems need. Poignantly though, the reaction people often expect from others is one of fear. After disclosure, a common reaction is to distance oneself from the person who has disclosed the problem to you, mainly out of a fear that they will lose their friendship.
I must insert a trigger warning for the next few paragraphs of this piece. For this was exactly what my friend feared most when they disclosed their eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia to me. We were close, extremely so, in fact, she is probably the one person I have truly loved.
We were close before she told me, and remained so afterwards. We were University flatmates, and she would often come to my room and chat with me. One of those nights, as her hearing aids whistled, she looked up at me earnestly and said;
“I’ve got something to tell you.”
Now as I am sure you will agree, this is a very loaded question. It can be a lead in to so many things, the good, the bad, and the very difficult.
She began to tell me, slowly how she suffered with anorexia, how she felt fat, and how she starved herself, and purged herself of any food she ate. The whole story unfolded over three hours and I can say accurately that I was silent for that time and didn’t even go to the loo.
She then asked me how I felt about it, and I replied;
“Well, it’s not about food and weight it’s about control, something you can control when everything else around you is out of control, or feels that way.”
She also told me numerous times she felt ugly and not beautiful, even though to me she had beauty in abundance.
After I had listened to her though, she told me that she expected me to run away, and not want more to do with her.
Now for me, this sends a huge red flag about mental health. People with mental health problems expect to be deserted and that is not right. Qualified professionals can only do so much, and friendship and kinship have a vital role to play.
Then she asked me why I got it, because most people don’t and I was perplexed. I’ve never been a person who doesn’t understand mental health, and I can’t imagine being such.
I think that eating disorders, and other associated problems are much misunderstood. Of course, the mantra that fat is not a feeling is an oft trumpeted one on eating disorders support website.
However, it is a euphemism for other feelings that feel too frightening to contemplate. It is also a response to an overload of feelings that may be overwhelming.
That said, one can’t just dismiss an eating disorder with a flick of the wrist and say just eat. This is where many people come unstuck. For many sufferers of eating disorders, eating is equivalent to the process of climbing Mount Everest.
In the end though, you may wonder why this matters to me. I care because through my disability, I understand what it is like to be trapped in a body you may not like, and I understand self loathing as well as self love.
I think that society treats people with mental health problems with an extreme lack of compassion. Sadly, you receive more sympathy for a broken leg than you do for a broken soul.
An understanding of mental health issues is a very un-British thing. In a society which privileges the stiff upper lip over disclosure, this increases the stigma over mental health problems. I say to everyone, mental health problems are nothing to be ashamed of and they do not make you a bad person. They are just a part of you and can be dealt with and managed, even if not eradicated.
The media needs to explode some myth bombs around mental health and I am delighted the New Statesman has grasped this nettle. Yes, maybe the news hooks aren’t there, but for once I just say, who cares?
For many people, mental health is not news. Instead it is the ongoing reality of their everyday life. We need to talk about mental health, and we need to talk about it now. Journalism must reflect this also.