Imagine your friend breaks out in a rash. They go through feverish periods of restlessness and can’t sleep, they lose their appetite and can’t eat. They find it difficult to concentrate. They feel too ill to leave their bed or to complete the various tasks of everyday life.
Sounds like a bad illness right?
Take away the rash. Take away the external manifestation of their illness. Physically they look just fine, yet the effects are just the same.
Mental illness is something that we don’t like to talk about, and yet it is a common and treatable condition which will affect all of us at some point in our lives, whether it is through experiencing it ourselves or knowing someone who is going through it. This is the part of an article on mental health issues where the usual one in four statistic is trotted out, but the fact of the matter is that mental health issues are more common than we think. We just maintain a silence and stigma around the issue or else we talk about it in a superficial way that lets us think that we’re doing something about it, but we’re not really.
So why do we find this highly common occurrence something that is so difficult to talk about? This is a question that is particularly important in the Irish context, because we have such a high suicide rate. Mental health issues are recognised as being a contributing factor to suicide, so it is important that we actually deal with the issue instead of hiding it away. Maybe if we treated mental illness as a real and concrete thing, like any other disease, we might actually be able to improve the lives of the people who live with it. If one in four people were to catch TB would the state stand idly by and ignore the problem? Of course not, there would be uproar, so why is mental illness so different? It can impair your ability to function, it contributes to fatalities. In the dark ages, diseases such as TB were actually treated as nebulous and terrifying things that wouldn’t happen to you if you ignored them. This approach didn’t help anyone and resulted in members of society being shunned. Those days are gone, so why does this archaic attitude pervade the discourse on Mental illness?
Let’s look at the reasons for our attitudes to dealing with mental health issues. On a societal level historical treatment of mental illness still distorts how we view people with mental illnesses. We see reminders all around us. Many towns in Ireland still have derelict institutional buildings which used to house people with mental illnesses. Although perhaps ‘imprison’ is a better word for what they did. At best this was done through ignorance mixed with good intentions, but I’m not sure how far society has progressed in terms of learning more and adopting a better attitude towards mental health. We tell ourselves that this otherisation of people suffering from mental illness is something far away and long ago, however, even as recently as the 70’s there is footage of patients in an NHS institution being placed together in an outdoor, fenced enclosure to get exercise. Much like a prison. Even today, the imposing Victorian buildings, which are unfit for purpose, are still being used by our underfunded health service to treat people with mental illnesses. We continue to treat mental illness with ignorance and fear. Which brings me to the personal level. How do you talk to a friend about mental illness? You want to help them but you just don’t know what to say. Relying on tired old clichés such as ‘things will get better’ and ‘keep busy’ just ring hollow and are patronising in some cases. But I can see why we say them, because our societal attitudes towards mental illness mean that on an individual level I will see mental illness as a scary thing that’s hard to talk about. I’m just as guilty as anyone of saying something vaguely comforting but ultimately meaningless because there isn’t anything I can say. And I feel bad about that but I don’t know what another person is going through, or how they’re feeling. If I haven’t actually experienced it I don’t know what the right thing to say is and I’m scared of saying the wrong thing, if indeed the mythical ‘wrong thing’ actually exists. Even though, being a third level student, I’d be expected to have a certain level of education, fear still prevents me from saying anything. This stigma is dangerous, it means that the problem of mental illness goes untreated and like any other illness, if left untreated it can get worse.
I’m looking at a computer screen. It’s a website telling people how to actually go about killing themselves. The methods are ranked in terms of lethality and pain. I want to turn away but I keep looking, because I want to understand the level that someone has to get to to reach this point of no return. In the media, in books, films, TV and art suicide is romanticised. It’s something that is used move along a narrative or add drama. A literary device. It’s not portrayed realistically. The curtains come down after the play or the TV show finishes. In reality the people who surround you will keep living. Knowing someone isn’t just about seeing them right now in the present, it’s also about sharing your past experiences and continuing to know them in the future. You want them to keep living because someday you’ll meet them again. Someday you’ll meet the person they become. They may not like the person that they are right now but their judgement is being clouded by something that shouldn’t and doesn’t define them. Things will get better, they should keep living not in order to attain perfection but precisely because of the imperfections that they dislike about themselves, because they make them who they are. This wonderful person who can’t be contained in a statistic, a memorial, a book or a film, no matter how detailed. A person who can change and grow, who can be great someday. Someone who can get better and will be stronger because of it. Somebody, who like everybody has so much potential. Suicide is no option. It takes options away. It’s hard to convey to someone the loss that you will feel without them. It’s hard to say, ‘please keep living’ but ultimately it’s something worth saying. The figures on fatalities in Ireland caused by suicide are stark. In 2011 there were 525 suicides registered, this is an increase of 7% from last year. These aren’t just black and white figures sitting on a page, they’re people. All of them are other human beings who got to the point where they felt like they couldn’t continue to exist. Look at the numbers that aren’t recorded. Each of those 525 represents a huge circle of people. Bigger than we realise in our day to day lives. Each is perhaps a wife waking up to an empty bed. A parent without a child. A brother without a sister. A friend.
I’m looking at a page that is telling me how to die. It’s insidious in its portrayal of the ease of death. It doesn’t care. Not for you, not for your friends, not for your family.
Which brings me on to the point of this editorial. How do you talk about mental illness? Talk about it like it’s any other illness. It’s ok for you not to understand, ask them to explain. If your friend does break out in a rash, and is telling you about it you’d ask pretty basic but normal questions. What is it? What are the symptoms? How does it make you feel? Mental illness is no different. Like any other illness point them to a medical professional for treatment. You wouldn’t shun them for having any other illness, so why treat someone with mental illness in this way. If you think that their symptoms are getting worse and they might be thinking of suicide ask them if they are. It’s better to know than to not know. Ask. Talk. Listen.
By Lorna Bogue, Co-Editor