This Saturday (October 10) is World Mental Health Day and although there seems to be a day celebrating everything nowadays (donuts…really?), this is actually something super important to get behind. I think about my mental health often and make strides to take care of it as much as my physical health. My mom recently told me that my family has a propensity for mental disturbance and schizophrenia on my grandpa’s side and it freaked me out. And I guess that encapsulates the problem about the way we think and converse (or don’t converse) about mental health. Too often it is stigmatized and viewed as something to be feared. And what do we do when we are afraid of something? We underplay it or worse ignore it.
Mental health has also been flooding our newsfeeds for another reason lately. In the aftermath of yet another mass shooting that killed 10 people in Oregon (the 45th this year in the US) last Thursday, Republicans had one thing to blame: mental illness. But in fact, as my favorite comedian/presenter/generally amazing person John Oliver points out “the aftermath of a mass shooting might actually be the worst time to talk about mental health. Because… the vast majority of mentally ill people are non-violent.” Mentally ill people are far likelier to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators, he adds. (Read this also.) Whereas it’s pretty obvious that this is just an excuse for Republicans to evade issues of gun control, it does bring to light how poorly mental health is handled in our society.
One in four adults lives with a mental disorder. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that around 450 million people currently suffer from mental disorders, placing them among the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide. In 2013, an estimated 43.8 million adults in the US suffered from a mental illness. These statistics are intense but it’s what even more worrying is that treatment is available but not being used. The WHO reports that nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder don’t seek help from a health professional, citing “stigma, discrimination, and neglect” as the three main reasons that prevent them. Onscreen, people suffering from mental disorders are often portrayed in a negative light: as villains, manics, or neurotics. The question begets: Why aren’t we looking after our mental health properly?
There is also a significant difference between the way women and men handle (and are taught to handle) mental health. When we compare the genders, women are more likely to have been treated for a mental health problem than men. The Better Or Worse: A Longitudinal Study of the Mental Health of Adults in Great Britain (2003) study puts this figure as 29% of women compared to 17% of men. It’s reported that men are also three times as likely to die by suicide than women.
“Men are often raised to be stoic, to suppress emotions rather than understand them, and when they struggle, often the only emotion that they see as sufficiently masculine to express is anger,” says Jon Davies, a psychologist and the director of the McKenzie River Men’s Center in Oregon. “It’s impossible to reach the ideal of what it means to be a man.”
His words ring poignantly true. I think about my grandfather, who growing up in the Soviet Union, was taught exactly this: to remain stoic, to show only one ‘face’—not only to the public, but also to his family—that of a together, protective, capable, strong man whose duty it was to take care of his family. Feeling blue? Get over it. Really down in the dumps? Still get over it. Suicidal? Can’t help you there. The man that ‘raised me’—whom I no longer have contact with and who put my mom and me through the wringer—suffered from depression and possibly some other mental disorder. He was prone to alcohol binges (that went on for a few days and sometimes even a week) and spent a lot of time feeling sorry for himself, which visualized itself in crying and reflecting (5%) and verbally and emotionally abusing my mom and I (95%). It should have been the reverse. When I had enough and said I was moving out of home at 18 (very young, especially for a girl from a pretty traditional family), my parents went berserk. I suggested us all seeing a family counselor. My mom immediately agreed, my dad thought I was insane and laughed at me. He’s the one that needs the most help, I thought. After eight sessions with a psychologist (one of the most positive things I did), my parents allowed me move out to a flat in the same neighborhood. My dad was still suffering through episodes and although his GP prescribed treatment (of the positive, talking kind), he refused every time. This all culminated in an affair with a family friend and my mom finally leaving him. Truth be told, I was relieved.
But there are days when I think what would have been if he just sought treatment. Perhaps he would have remained a selfish, abusive man, but perhaps not. Perhaps if our society was less about “boys don’t cry” and more about “crying is a healthy way to get rid of frustration/sadness/anger,” he would have been more inclined to get in touch with his feelings and deal with his issues. There is a pattern of men distracting themselves with other activities like watching TV, playing sport, or drinking as a coping mechanism. Perhaps if he didn’t put away a dozen beers a night (and vodka on the weekends) and talked about his problems, then maybe his mental health situation wouldn’t have worsened with each passing year. In the end, three people suffered when none could have.
This hiding and avoidance of emotions (and thus an underplaying or complete neglect of perhaps something more serious) seems to be a widespread epidemic. A poll conducted by the mental health charity Mind reports that only one in five 18-34-year-olds admit to having cried in the past week because of anxiety, whereas the other four “put on a brave face when anxious.” Meanwhile, a Populus poll of 2,063 adults reports that women are three times more likely than men to have cried because of anxiety and twice as likely to say they felt better after. I’m a massive crier but I have to say that I only felt comfortable with this label as I got older. In high school, my severe sensitivity would result in me ending up in tears, sometimes over serious things, sometimes over not-so-serious things. But I always felt better and relieved after crying. People’s reaction to my crying, however, did not make me feel so good. Teachers told me to “toughen up” and classmates more often that not ignored me. But I had the advantage of being a girl and “girls are allowed to cry.” As I grew up, I understood how healthy it is and no longer felt guilty at tearing up (read: full-on waterworks) during Titanic. Unsurprisingly, the aforementioned poll also found that one in four 18 to 34-year-olds thought that showing emotions is a sign of weakness, compared to only one in 10 people over the age of 55.
Although the WHO says that treatment for mental health issues is readily available (and I’m intrigued by this idea of Recovery Bags), more often than not we hear stories about mental health services being in disarray. I urge you to watch the above link to John Oliver’s mental health segment to get even a small slice of the pathetic and downright frightening state of mental health services in the US. Likewise, in Northern Ireland the outlook is “pretty bleak,” with a lack of funding resulting in many feeling that the system fails to treat patients as “people.” New York’s Bootham Park psychiatric hospital was closed down last Thursday after an unannounced inspection by the Care Quality Commission. The hospital saw 400 patients a week and housed people with severe mental disorders. Where will suicidal New Yorkers turn to now? Bryony Gordon writes in The Telegraph that the situation is “shocking but not unexceptional,” citing similarly serious problems with UK’s mental health services. And although not a mental health issue, even something like dyslexia is not recognized in Turkey. If you can’t read, you’re dumb basically. I dread to think what the general consensus about mental health, especially for men, is in the country.
This lack of services—in whichever form it may take—has disastrous consequences for people’s mental health. I read on BBC online last week that 62% of young people and children would rather use the internet to deal with depression that speak to someone like a parent, friend, or a GP. “There needs to be a more robust incorporation of the reality of mental illness in our education system from an early age,” writes an anonymous medical student in this excellent article.
There are also, thankfully, positives. Last month, UK’s first health mental health center for men opened and my savior for Britain (and perhaps the world), Jeremy Corbyn, says he intends to make mental health a “priority”. Mental health is also creeping its way into the mainstream with more celebrities getting behind it (and in our narcissistic culture that’s actually a good thing). Demi Lovato, who was diagnosed as bipolar, is using her status to raise awareness about mental illness. “I went through several years of pain and suffering, and I want to be able to help people and help try to prevent that suffering from happening,” she told People magazine. And this Saturday on World Mental Health Day, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, aka William and Kate, will visit an event hosted by Mind at Harrow College. Sure, there’s PR at play here, but I’d rather celebrities and royal people get behind these real issues than tweet themselves eating donuts at sports event.
The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is “Dignity in mental health” and the WHO will be raising awareness of what can be done to ensure that people with mental health conditions live with dignity. We can all do our bit. Talk to each other more about our feelings, cry more, ask the men in our lives if everything’s ok regularly, recognize when things are really not ok and seek professional help. We put a lot of effort into #cleaneating and exercise—it’s time to pay the same attention to our mental health.
Main image courtesy of www.gvhlive.com.