Mental Health – the last great taboo?

Over the past couple of nights I have watched two amazing explorations of mental illness, Stephen Fry’s ‘The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive’ and the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’.  Both were fascinating!

Stephen Fry suffers from bi-polar disorder or manic depression as it is otherwise known as.  He spent some time meeting people who suffer from depression and manic depression to explore how it affects their lives.  Most striking was the difficulty in diagnosis and then the problems with treatment.  Many manic depressives like the milder episodes of mania.  They find them energising and creative.  Almost all of the sufferers Fry talked to said they would not have the disorder taken away if the had the choice!

A Beautiful Mind is the story of John Nash, a mathematical genius and paranoid schitzophrenic.  Nash believed he was working for the government on a highly secret code breaking assignment but was in fact delusional.  The film is a fabulous study of the trauma severe mental ilness causes on both the sufferer and those around them.

I guess my thought is that Mental Illness seems to be one of the last taboos.  Why are we so ashamed of this kind of illness?  I don’t get it.  Mental illness is pretty common.  It is much more widely understood so why the secrecy?


12 Responses to Shhh!!!

  1. pmk says:

    Mental illness, although no longer such a taboo, is still not ‘understood’ as much as other illnesses, and it’s difficult to cure/manage. Crikey, wording here gets a bit woolly, I apologise for that. It is becoming more common place for people to be up-front about having a mental illness, but public perception still plays a huge part in the reason why not everyone feels comfortable being public about it. I know I still don’t volunteer information about my mental health – I’m still one of those who is deeply suspicious when anyone asks ‘how are you’, but that’s a purely personal (and paranoid!) thing! What do you say to someone…? Ah, a rambling response to a blogger’s comment – sorry about that!

  2. swryv says:

    I wonder if your unease about responding is borne out of long experience of both responding to and asking that question, How are you? I would imagine that 80-90% of the times that question is asked the person asking actually has little or no interest in the real answer and if any of us were to respond truthfully people wouldn’t know what to do!

    ‘How are you?’ ‘Well actually not very good…’ That’s not the resonse people are programmed for. ‘Fine’ is about as bad as most people will admit to no matter what they are feeling or facing. I guess much of this is about social interaction. We would like people to think we are interested and caring when in fact we only care about people we are close to. Perhaps the 10% of people asking how we are actually care and would prefer an honest response because they care and would be willing to help, share, console, laugh, cry or whatever is needed. The problem is working out who those 10% are and then taking the risk of telling it how it is when asked ‘How are you?’.

  3. hospital corners says:

    “How are you?” Good question!

    I believe that the “how are you?” question is fast becoming a question that doesn’t really need or want an answer! It takes longer than a millisecond to work out if you’re being asked because someone is really interested or if they’re merely saying “hello”. Usually by the time you’ve worked that out the other person in the conversation has moved on (maybe they’re bored already!). This exchange has always fascinated me. It even makes me smile sometimes … loads of people do it! And telling if the “how are you?” question is loaded or not is always tricky but in my experience if it’s articulated with a tilt of the head, you’re on to a winner … or maybe I’m just being paranoid?

    Mental health and wellbeing is a big issue these days. So why, in 2006, are there still so many mis-perceptions about mental illness that it’s always a surprise for some people to learn it’s as common as heart disease and three times as common as cancer. One in ten people suffer from it and it affects men and women from every cultural and social background and all age groups.

    Many years ago a girl I knew was hospitalised because she just couldn’t cope with life anymore. I was worried about her and was telling a mutual friend, a ‘busy person’, who commented, “och, I wouldn’t have any time to have a mental illness”. Clearly this person saw it as some kind of weakness, even something she had control over and she obviously had too much time on her hands. Why do we still hear comments like this? Yeah it’s about lack of understanding but it’s also about lack of compassion for another human being. You don’t need to be an expert to care.

    And why, in 2006 for goodness sake, is the image of mental health still often associated with unpredictability, violence and bizarre behaviour?! It’s not just about those who suffer from severe and frightening symptoms of mental illness. It’s about a person suffering from depression after the death of their partner; a mother with post-natal depression; a young man facing the complexities of schizophrenia; someone experiencing panic attacks that prevent them functioning normally; someone with dementia and unable to care for themselves.

    Is everyone so ‘sorted’? I doubt it!!!

    So, how are you all today anyway?

  4. swryv says:

    I’m fine thanks! LOL

    I wonder if one of the big misunderstandings about mental health is that many of the problems people face are more down to biological problems than psychological ones. People assume that mental health problems are some kind of weakness like Hospital Corners says but many mental ilnesses is treatable to some extent with a mixture of diet, excercise and medication.

    I don’t get why people are so dismissive of something that 1 in 4 of us will suffer from at some point in our lives.

  5. pmk1977 says:

    Maybe because there is a fear of being the one person in four who ends up suffering?

  6. swryv says:

    But why more so than say diabetes or arthritis?

  7. Maybe some people just don’t know what to say or they’re scared of saying the wrong thing so don’t say anything.

    Do you think it’s a generational thing?

  8. swryv says:

    I think maybe it is generational. Like everything else, the more open people are about things the less people fear them. It’s interesting the number of very high profile people who have begun to talk about their mental illhealth recently. That can only be a good thing!

  9. hospital corners says:

    I’d agree, partly.

    Stephen Fry was fab because he spoke with honesty and was keen to present bipolar as something that could be a positive thing. He clearly wouldn’t sway places with anyone or have his illness removed … that would spoil his creativity and what makes him Stephen Fry!

    Don’t you think though that the media sometimes exaggerate mental illness experienced by celebrities for the sake of a storyline?

  10. hospital corners says:

    apologies for spelling error … should’ve said ‘swap’ not ‘sway’ (obviously)!!!!

  11. swryv says:

    I think the media exaggerates everything!

  12. notlikely says:

    Well, people suffering from some mental illnesses do not even realize it and adamantly refuse treatment. So it’s not always secrecy; often it’s denial.

    As for why relatives of the ill person try to hide it… well, that should be pretty obvious, no? Some mental illnesses imply a perception of the world so distorted that people who are known to suffer from them are not regarded as fully rational human beings, and end up social drop-outs as their friends abandon them. Can’t blame the friends either – would you continue to carry on as if nothing happened if a friend of yours started suspected that you’re actually a secret agent on a mission to kill him?

    Mental illnesses that do not carry such connotations are not actually considered shameful. Depression is actually pretty fashionable right now, methinks. Anyone feeling a little bit blue just loves to throw the word around, sometimes using it as an excuse to sit around and do nothing.

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