There was a time when mental illness didn’t exist. It was in my lifetime, too. People were sad, they suffered from bad nerves, maybe having a nervous breakdown if those bad nerves became unbearable. And there was schizophrenia where people had split personalities – yes, they did, no they didn’t. There were jokes about it and how we laughed. If you were sad about something, you needed to snap out of it. As Piers Morgan once put it, us men needed to “man up”, unless we were women, in which case we would, presumably, need to woman up. We now know much more about mental ill health, but have attitudes really changed?
In the last few weeks, I have heard interviews with Prince Harry who suffered greatly following the tragic death of his mother. Quite what his father was doing when Harry was suffering, we may never know, but the boy suffered all right, His openness helps us all. Last week, I read a piece by the former England cricketer Steve Harmison, who gave a harrowing account of his own struggle. He was not the first cricketer to “come out” but his bravery was every bit as inspirational as those, like Marcus Trescothick, who came before. So far as I can tell, the reaction to all these well known people revealing their own conditions has been met only with positivity. That’s fantastic, but I am beginning to wonder if the efforts of those in the footlights are in vain for many of the rest of us.
Speaking personally, for those of us near the bottom rung of influence in this country, little has changed. It certainly hasn’t for me in recent years when I have come up against breathtaking levels of ignorance and almost disdain for my own problems. Far from receiving support when I needed it, it felt like I was being transported back to the old days where, well, if you were sad and fed up, you should “snap out of it”. I have concluded that the lack of empathy I received as, at least in part, down to my status as a middle aged man who had been there, done that, bought the T shirt and probably been sick down the front of it. A rufty-tufty bloke with several days stubble, I could not possibly have a black dog casting a shadow over me, but I did. And when I was feeling at my very worst – well, I’ll tell you all about it someday.
So many people I know and have known for a wide range of time have suffered from various mental disorders and some of them, most of them, have never let on and some still don’t, except to me and our little mental health community. How would you feel if a smart businessman or your local spark or chippy suffered from low mood? Christ, you’d never get your products on time, your wooden tables would fall to bits and your plugs would start blowing up. You know, dear sufferer, that it doesn’t work like that but I remain convinced that there is a sizeable portion of the country that still assesses a depressive to be clinically insane and thus unreliable and of little value.
One of my recent therapists – and when I say recent, I mean within the last decade or so – advised that it was important to be open about mental health, that attitudes were different these days, that people understood that mental illness was much more than being fed up about something and that it would have a positive effect on me and others. To an extent, it did have a positive effect but I reckoned without the possibility of not everyone being positive about it. If I had known what might have happened, where I was nearly crushed by uncaring ignorance I might have felt twice about it. I got through it, but I’ll never forget the lesson: be careful who you tell. In terms of mental health, in many forms of life, especially where you would least expect to find them, there are dinosaurs.
I think there’s the moral of the mental health story: be careful who you tell. If you know you have a genuinely caring employer with systems in place and you have people around you who you trust, then share your secrets. But when you don’t know don’t, take care. When people don’t understand mental health, they probably don’t care either. They think you’re just fed up. Don’t leave it alone, do see a doctor, think about making adjustments with your life and make them.