Mental health patients - its not 'them' and 'us' !
Turn on the radio or news today and most likely you have heard something of the furore surrounding the decision by two major uk supermarkets to stock, amongst their halloween merchandise, a ‘mental patient’ costume complete with fake blood and a meat cleaver.
Listening to the debate, two clear sides emerge - bewildered and upset people - usually those who have had personal experience of emotional and mental health problems - either as patients or carers, and those who think that this is a whole load of fuss about nothing - and some of these are also those with personal experience of mental health patients.
But the real issue behind this isn’t one of whether we all need to see some kind of light hearted harmless side to it all. I won’t even go into the whole issue around Halloween - should we even be wanting to celebrate things that are bad and evil? Personally I’d much rather celebrate the things in this world that are great and good... but no - the real issue here is that this demonstrates clearly the continuing miscomprehension surrounding mental health - that it is a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation.
It is so tempting to think of those struggling with mental and emotional health issues as different from ‘the rest of us’ in some kind of clearly definable way. It is so human to want to protect ourselves from the fear that the kind of distress, confusion and ultimately loss of control that can result from emotional ill health could actually happen to any of us. But to do so has enormous consequences for those who do find that somewhere on their journey of life it throws experiences at them which combined with their own personalities and the things they have come to understand about the world and themselves, result in an overwhelming spiral of negative emotions which conspire to drag them into dark places.
Let me explain. I have worked with loads of people who have experienced mental health problems. Anxiety, depression, self harm, eating disorders, compulsive behaviours, problems with stress, obsessional thinking - there are many ways in which emotional illness can strike. All of those people were ‘normal‘ people before they became ill. And all were ‘normal‘ people once they had recovered. The truth is - they always were normal! There is nothing more normal than to experience emotions. They are at the heart of what it is to be human. Even your most basic terminator film appreciates that! Emotional illness happens when emotions become too powerful, too numerous or too out of control to handle. Any of us can be unlucky enough to find ourselves in a situation where we need some help when this happens.
Emotional health isn’t a ‘them’ and ‘us’, ‘ill’ or ‘healthy’ situation - it is a line, a continuum, with health at one end and ill health at the other. We all move up and down it throughout life depending on what we have to overcome. Some of us have the fortune to start out very high up, near the healthy end, with happy family experiences, great childhoods that confirm who we are and send us out ready to face the world. Others of us are not so lucky and have experiences which send us out somewhere a bit more challenging, needing to question who we are and what we think and feel. Mental illness can come from nowhere, with something which hurls us into a place we never thought we’d face. It can drift on gradually, with years of stress and challenges gradually wearing us down. It can be something we have always known and endured, part of the world we grew up in. But it can affect anyone.
So does all this matter? Are people making too much of a fuss? You know, destigmatising mental and emotional illness is one of our main drives at Mind and Soul. I would challenge anyone not to share this aim if they had sat as I have many rooms with countless young people and adults, all facing emotional illness and all finally daring to voice their deepest fears -that they were perhaps tainted, deficient in some way - ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, ‘nutter’, ‘psycho’ - these are all words that people have used to me as they admitted their terror of what they might be because they were having to admit that they were ‘mentally ill’. They were all wonderful amazing brave strong people full of potential and ability and talent. They were all great to be around, and they all have amazing lives ahead of them. BUt they all feared that they were useless. Stigma is dangerous because it tries to take away people’s individuality and their future. It is dangerous because the fear that you are crazy - the lie that there is no hope and you are somehow ‘different’ can only drive people further down and further away. It is a tremendous privilege to reassure people that they are none of those things and help them to rediscover their confidence and belief in who they were created to be - to see them regaining their right to be happy and experience life in all its fullness.
So, when I think about a costume for a ‘mental patient’ I think that I could, one day, be one. We all could. I think that there is no generic sweeping generalisation you can make for anyone who has suffered mental or emotional ill health. I think that at the end of the day someone’s value doesn’t come from being ‘normal’ or ‘invincible’ or supremely ‘stable’ - it comes from the person you were created as.
If as you are reading this today, you know you have been, will be, or are right now a ‘mental patient’ be encouraged. So are loads of us! It doesn't define who you are now or who you will be in the future. We are tremendously proud of all of you as you face your fears, challenge your thinking and try to work through the things affecting you. Never let yourself be labelled. Be individual. Be unique. Keep going - life in all its fullness is there, you can make it. The Bible talks about more and better life than you ever dreamed of (thats a bit of a quote from John 10 verse 10, in the message translation) - focus on that hope and remember - you are no less normal than anyone else.
Kate Middleton, 26/09/2013