April 23, 2016

Breaking the stigma: one image that will make you think differently about mental health

Stigma definiton blog post mental health
In the lead up to the marathon, some rumours have been floating around that I’ve set unnecessarily difficult goals just to prove I’m not getting old. I have no comment on this, but am happy to talk about some of the other reasons I’ll be lining up to run 26.2 miles.

With most of the preparations for the race complete, it seems a good time to share some of the things I’ve learned through contact with the Mental Health Foundation and an attempt to fix my own ignorance about mental health…

Why is mental health important?

The statistics are both compelling and pretty shocking; in any given year mental illness affects 1 in 4 of us, at a cost estimated to be in excess of £100bn.

Despite the scale of the problem, we’re a long way away from providing the level of care needed to support those with mental health conditions. If I eventually do break my (not so youthful) body, the treatment I’ll need is likely to be ready and waiting for me. With a condition you can’t diagnose by running a scan or taking a blood test however, the same wouldn’t necessarily be true. I’ve seen the effects of this with people close to me who’ve struggled with mental health, and heard many more stories about how difficult it is for people to get access to the right care and treatment (even when they have serious conditions).

One reason for this inequality in care is a lack of funding, but it’s not something that can be solved just by throwing more money at it. Alongside allocation of resources, the Mental Health Foundation campaigns for improvements such as better integration of talking therapies with front-line health services, and initiatives focussed on prevention.

Whether its statistics or stories, it doesn’t take long to realise how important their work is. As a result the decision to run for the Mental Health Foundation wasn’t a difficult one. Once I’d secured a place however, it struck me that I didn’t understand what the terms ‘mental health’ or ‘mental illness’ really meant. It seems it’s not the sort of thing that often crops up in conversation.

This highlights one of the biggest issues when it comes to improving mental health care – we don’t talk about it!

What’s with the stigma?

So what makes us reluctant to talk openly about mental health?

First off, even if I understood all of the factors that contribute to the stigma around mental illness, I doubt I could come up with a decent answer. What I do suspect though, is that it has a lot to do with fear. As humans we hate the unexplained – if we can’t define or rationalise something a natural reaction is to be fearful of it. It just so happens that mental health is an incredibly complex subject and so is difficult enough to understand as a concept, let alone how individuals experience it on a personal level.

The obvious question from here is how do we address the stigmatisation of mental health?

“Knowledge dispels fear”

I first heard this quote used by a fighter pilot called Andy Green. As the Land Speed World Record holder, he’s pretty uniquely qualified to comment on the topic of fear, so I think we can all agree to take his word for it.

Looking to educate yourself then, is a great first step in addressing the stigma around mental health. Whilst there’s a lot of resources available to help with this, filtering and making sense of the information isn’t necessarily that easy. Part of the reason is that mental health and mental illness have their own definitions but ultimately fall under one concept. Here’s the simplest and most effective way I’ve seen it explained…

Mental Health Continuum

The big lesson I took from seeing it set out in this way? Whilst we can define mental illnesses, the distinctions between those of us with and without isn’t so binary. We may sit at very different ends of a spectrum, but we’re all on it!

In the end this is why the MHF’s mission resonates with me. Whilst some of us will never suffer from a mental illness, we all have mental health and at various times in our lives it’s going to be in less than ideal shape; a family member gets sick, money problems, a bad breakup, losing your job, anxiety about exam results etc. – any number or combination of factors can affect it.

As a result the MHF’s work has unique potential; to significantly improve the lives of individuals who need the most urgent support, but also to have a longer term impact on the whole population when it comes to improving health, well-being, productivity, and happiness.

This is the reason why every bit of physical distress I’ve subjected myself to during training – and will no doubt experience during the marathon – is worthwhile. Sure, it’s a big challenge – but I won’t be facing it by myself. Until everybody struggling with their mental health feels like that, organisations like the MHF and the people who work for them need our support.

If you want to make a difference, spread understanding by sharing this post or head to the MHF website to learn more about what they do and how you can get involved. Alternatively, you can help me support the MHF by clicking the ‘donate‘ button above (link to my fundraising page).

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