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Brands are teaming up with mental health charities, celebrities are speaking out, we have a Mental Health Awareness Week and ‘Be Kind’ hashtags tacked onto tweets: the mental health conversation is transforming in front of our eyes. But have we got it wrong?
As a society, we’ve become much more comfortable talking about depression and anxiety in recent years. While being open about mental health is great (and much-needed) progress, of course, there’s no denying people squirm when faced with illnesses less understood in the mainstream. Those who act ‘erratically’, hear voices, or – let’s be honest – simply exhibit symptoms of their illness, are frequently left out of the conversation.
While it’s a cynical take, it does beg the question: Have we been guilty of cherry-picking within the mental health space?
Nicole Foster didn’t know when she was walking around school ‘incapable of smiling’ that she actually had depression, a stark reality for so many thanks to the major holes in mental health awareness. In fact, at the time, Nicole didn’t even know what mental illness was. The 23-year-old, who shares her experience with mental health recovery on both YouTube and Instagram, was later diagnosed with bipolar II and bulimia – both of which she feels are painfully absent from the mental health conversation.
‘When I got my bipolar diagnosis, I was mortified because of the stigmas you see online – people just kind of see people with bipolar as being crazy, really impulsive, just completely out of it,’ Nicole admitted.
According to Mind, bipolar II is categorised as experiencing severe episodes of depression as well as episodes of hypomania, a milder form of mania that typically lasts for a shorter period of time.
‘People with bipolar don’t want to talk about that side of it – the mania – because they think they’re going to be judged, whereas depression on social media is so common and spoken about that you can almost admit to that and face up to it. That for me is where I do struggle and see the difference,’ she added.
It appears to be a common sentiment that mental health awareness is currently only scratching the surface, with entire disorders often getting missed off, albeit heavily misunderstood. Nicole agrees, saying, ‘I don’t know if it’s because I’m biased but I don’t see bipolar being spoken about on anything, to be honest. You don’t get schizophrenia… Even OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] is so deeply misunderstood.’
The 23-year-old was confronted with this harsh reality after researching further into OCD after suspecting a crossover between the illness and her eating disorder. She explained, ‘I’ve tried to look into [OCD] more recently because there are parts of my eating disorder that could tie over with some parts of OCD, but even I can’t understand it and I’ve read like every single webpage on every single illness. So, I’d actually say OCD is pretty up there with something that is definitely left out.’
Nicole also drew attention to how certain topics seem more appealing in the past-tense, telling UNILAD:
I think the issue is, let’s say you’re having a crisis at the moment and you put on social media ‘I’m literally having a crisis, I don’t know what to do, I’m in such a bad place mentally’, people almost see it as attention-seeking, like people committing suicide is attention-seeking. No, they’re actually at a point of desperation.
Whereas let’s say if three months down the line you posted, ‘Oh I was really down three months ago today, I wanted to end my life but I got through it, I can see it was worth it’, you get all this praise – it’s just a completely different way it’s met.
Fellow mental health advocate Emily Bashforth echoed a similar stance, admitting that ‘romanticising’ mental illnesses has a lot to answer for.
‘When someone exhibits symptoms that person isn’t prepared for, people shy away from talking about what’s really going on – and that will never be helpful. People seem to like the romantic versions of mental illnesses; the classic movie trope that love can save you from a mental illness. But in real life, they’re far uglier, much more complex and often make people act as someone they’re not,’ she told UNILAD.
The journalist and campaigner, who primarily posts about her recovery from an eating disorder, explained how this has infiltrated into her own experience, admitting eating disorders are ‘horrifyingly glamorised’ and that ‘normalising a beautiful idea of eating disorders means people don’t know how to react when confronted with the absolute most horrific symptoms’.
‘Every mental illness exists in millions of forms depending on the person, and the only way we’ll ever get to remove stigma fully is by abolishing the stereotypes and being open-minded in accepting that, no, there isn’t one way to be mentally ill,’ she added.
Carole Robb, therapist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre, told UNILAD it’s ‘common’ to feel ‘uncomfortable discussing some of the more complicated mental health problems’. But this has stretched beyond the hypothetical, with Robb admitting she’s ‘had lots of clients who delay seeking a diagnosis because of the stigma attached’ – a glaringly similar scenario to the embarrassment Nicole felt at receiving her bipolar diagnosis.
That fact people are putting off getting the right help for fear of being judged or defined by their diagnosis feels like a cold dose of reality: have we really come as far as we think?
‘There is a fear of being judged by others and a lack of knowledge and empathy… We fear what we don’t understand and in general society we don’t recognise the common signs and symptoms of complex mental health conditions,’ Robb said.
According to The Mental Health Foundation, it’s estimated that 75% of people with mental health problems in England may not get access to the treatment they need, and while those seeking help for common mental health issues has increased by more than 10% between 2007 and 2014, there are still huge disproportionalities at play.
Robb explained we’re ‘seeing excellent progress’ with struggles like anxiety and depression, adding, ‘In the main, these are now recognised by wider society as diagnosable, treatable conditions and common symptoms are widely known.’
The same can’t be said for other mental health issues, however, with Robb telling UNILAD:
I think there is much more work that can be done on some of the more complex issues like bipolar, OCD, psychosis and borderline personality disorder. I think a lot of this is down to a lack of awareness and understanding.
Paving a way to a more accepting society for all aspects of mental health requires everyone to do their part, listen up and learn. Robb explained, ‘Reducing stigma and generating positive conversations about complex mental disorders and illnesses requires the efforts of everyone in society. Education and awareness are key – at all levels of society. Right down to everyday discussions, in the office, around the dinner table, in roles such as mine, in the media. It all contributes to slowly changing attitudes,’
Meanwhile, Emily believes more help needs to come from above. She said, ‘Talking is only half of this battle – action is also required. Those in power have to play their part and offer funding and resources for the services currently struggling to help everyone as they’d like to.’
There’s no question we should be continuing to spread awareness around topics like depression and anxiety, but we need to be wary of only talking about the side of mental health we’re ‘comfortable’ with. It’s this kind of progress and education that will ensure no one else gets left behind, too terrified to reach out for help.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this article and would like to speak with someone in confidence, call the BEAT Eating Disorders helpline on 0808 801 0677. Helplines are open 365 days a year from 9am–8pm during the week, and 4pm–8pm on weekends and bank holidays. Alternatively, you can try the one-to-one webchat.
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