Dave's Progress. Chapter 121: All Power to You.

Recently, at the Media Action Group for Mental Health, where I do my voluntary work, we have been trying to define exactly what the purpose of our organization is and what it should be doing to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. As a small, local charity, perhaps we sometimes feel overwhelmed by how big the problem of stigma is and are, therefore, concerned that we tackle areas in which we feel that we can actually bring about some change. We have started this process, then, by asking ourselves three questions- what is stigma? what impact does stigma have on people with mental illness? and finally, if stigma were removed, what would the benefits be?
So, as I wrote my own little piece on these questions, I began to wonder about another, related subject. And that is the question of just why the movement to reduce the stigma around mental ill health seems to lack any significant political, social, economic or cultural power. Perhaps it does have some momentum and weight, but hardly on the same scale as that for the movements for racial or female equality, or gay rights.
After all, it is not as if mental illness is some rare phenomenon, only affecting a few people. If the often quoted statistic is correct, then one in four people will be affected by mental illness, in some way, during the course of their lives. Rates of those experiencing anxiety and depression seem to be going through the roof, and more serious illnesses, like schizophrenia, are said to affect at least 1% of the population. 1% may not sound like much, but coupled with the overall figures, the sheer numbers would seem to provide for a movement with significant impact. So why is it that when, for example, I asked a visiting journalist from our local newspaper to explain why he had written a certain headline which I found derogatory to people with mental ill health, his response was to simply say that I was reducing the argument to "semantics" and that, anyway, "your average person in the street couldn't care less about mental illness"? I should have pointed out to him that sometimes our argument is all about "semantics" and the language people use to describe mental illness or those experiencing it and that with one in four people being, in some way, affected by mental illness, if they're not bothered about it, then they should be. Unfortunately, as is so often in life, I only thought of this devastating response after our meeting!
So, why is it that when it comes to mental illness most people "couldn't care less" unless they are directly affected? We all, for instance, have to obey certain rules of conduct and take care with the language we use in terms of race, gender and homosexuality or else risk alienating ourselves from mainstream thought and models of behaviour. Why is this different for mental illness?
Well, it seems to me that while the ideologies which fed racism, sexism or homophobia are decidedly on the wane, the ones feeding the stigma around mental illness are still very much alive. One only has to look at portrayals of mental illness in the media or in film and literature to know this. So, there appears to be a very real social feeling that it is OK to laugh at, sneer, or induce fear about, mental illness. Levels of factually correct knowledge about mental ill health seem very low aswell, which perhaps feeds negative attitudes and discriminatory behaviour.
It seems, then, that many with mental illness are trapped in a vicious circle, kept in a certain social and cultural position by stigma. Similarly, in terms of our economic or political clout, stigma appears to keep us at a certain level. Many still feel that those who govern should not be allowed to if they have had a mental illness, despite figures such as Winston Churchill now being known to have suffered from depression for much of his life. Indeed, when a statue of Churchill wearing a straight-jacket was unveiled some years ago, obviously to make a point about stigma and mental illness, it was regarded by some as an insult to his memory. Many of those in high or "professional" jobs seem loath to disclose histories of mental illness for fear of reprisals. In terms of our economic power, it is the case that 70% of those with experience of psychotic illness remain poor and unemployed, so how can we ever hope to make an impact in the way that the gay rights movement did with the power of "the pink pound".
So, politically, economically, socially and culturally, the mental health movement would seem to lack momentum, and the only way to combat this would seem to be to continue to attempt to erode stigma in whatever ways we can. One can only hope that more of those experiencing mental ill health, particularly those in powerful positions, will speak out about their illnesses and some sort of tipping point will be reached. One understands that disclosure of this sort is fraught with difficulties because of stigma, but only by speaking out can stigma be reduced. To those who do decide to do this, then, I wish all power to you.    


The Manic Chef said…
David, good article and I see your consistency regarding the 'stigma' people may suffer from the varying degrees of mental health issues. I through present experience have a neighbour...two doors down from my abode, is one who has serious mental health issues. He was once asked to vacate his apartment before I moved into this building, and returned just before I moved in. He does not take his medication, and drinks beer heavily. Just last night I was awoke to some of the most hellish screams of terror and torment, one can imagine. It sounds as if some kind of beast is ripping him apart. Once in a while when I can not handle such carrying on, I take authority to demand he knock it off, or I will complain to the landlord. I did not want to do it, but when someone does take the stand to demand he stop, he stops, and is quiet during the duration of the day and evening. But within a day or so, he will start up again. I think people who suffer such extreme mental health issues and refuse their medications can be part of the cause of such stigmas. I know it's not 'just' that the rest of us should be linked with persons likened unto this neighbour, but can you blame them? For it is those that are extremely bad off that, I feel, make the lasting impression upon people. So it is up to us, those that are not so afflicted present another picture. I know I have had people who have judged me, and shunned me, but it is their problem, for they lack the compassion and the patience to understand, so they run. I thank God that I no longer run after them to try and convince them I'm a likable kind of guy. I think it's up to us individually to make our 'mark' amongst the masses, and in doing so, we will person by person prove the stigma an error for the most part. Thanks for provoking me to think once again! Later.....
David said…
Dear Manic Chef,
Thanks for your comment and it's good to have you back.
I suppose it is very difficult to be understanding towards those who are in the throes of very serious conditions. I know my own behaviour in the past served to alienate many. Even my family had to avoid me at that time.
However, I have got better and one would hope that with the correct help and interventions the same could be said of the person you speak of. Perhaps at the moment he does not belong where he finds himself, with some kind of hospital environment being where he should be and receiving the sort of care that can help him. To me, when one hears of such things, one just wonders what mental health services are doing to help. Where are they? Why don't they intervene?
Anyway, glad to have stirred your thoughts again.
With Very Best Wishes,
dcrelief said…
Dear David,

I find it interesting that what I call 'normal-land' people react with fear and panic. Having absolutely no experience to assist their understanding, they shun, laugh, and/or isolate the 'mental issues' of other people. For example: I attended 'Narcotics Anonymous' meetings for seven years. I didn't attend that long because I used alcohol or drugs. Once I became clean and sober, I found I really enjoyed the shared experiences. “Once an addict, always an addict,” was never more wrong after that. We were and are people seeking better lives for ourselves. We have the added bonus of knowing we are mind, body, and soul without division, i.e., you arm hurts and your brain lets you know!

I have found it offensive that so-called mental health experts(?) have indulged in dividing mind from body. As in 1967 in America a new group calling themselves “psychiatrists” separated from the neurological field of medicine; talk about opening “Pandora's Box”. Lots of money to made from that switch... I remember when Hollywood, Ca., boasted of their all important “psychiatrists and psychologists”. It was a glamorous thing, and as long as it was... things were fine.

Moving on... as always, David, you've written an excellent article. I feel 'a part' of the weight this carries for you. My seven years of volunteer work was gratifying and enriched my life with lovely people. I have no answers, unfortunately, for your questions. I do know that once I opened the closet on my own mental health and gave myself the power to love me... life got better. So your conclusion of, “All Power To You” resonates strongly. Thank you so much for giving your time to others.

In respect, with ongoing friendship,
David said…
Dear Dixie,
Thank you for such an erudite response.
I think the mind/body distinction actually goes back as far as the philosopher Descates, who also came up with the famous saying cogito ergo sum, i.e. I think therefore I am.
However, having attended a conference on why physical health matters in mental health, it seems that there may be some progress in viewing the mind and body being linked, instead of disparate entities. In fact, one speaker spoke of "ditching Descartes".
Anyway, I'm glad that you seem to have also found that volunteer work can enrich your life and I wish you all the very best for the future. Continue to love yourself, dc, you deserve it!
From your blogging pal,
David said…
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