Healthy Mind

Open your mind – stigma and mental illness

“I’m depressed”, “she’s a psycho”, “that fella is crazy”. Whether we are updating our Facebook statuses, Tweeting or just chatting to friends, every day we are unknowingly maintaining a dangerous stigma that is crippling to Irish society.

These simple statements may be said harmlessly or just as a “joke”, but these jokes are part of a tradition of marginalisation that has existed in Ireland for decades.

World Mental Health Day took place earlier this month and for many of us (including myself), it passed by unnoticed.

Why is this? Why is it that we as a nation are so unaware and judgemental of an illness that affects so many of our citizens? Why is it that we so flippantly use words describing such serious illnesses as slang or to joke with friends?

It wouldn’t be seen to be appropriate to be making slanderous cancer-related or HIV-related terms in buoyant conversations with friends.  

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “mental health is a most important, maybe the most important, public health issue, which even the poorest in society must afford to promote, to protect and to invest in.”

According to WHO statistics, one in five Europeans will develop a depressive episode during their lifetime. Yet it is an issue that remains swept under the carpet in Irish society.

A family member of mine suffered from what we can now recognise as clinical depression, but at the time it was referred to as “nerves”.

This man was born in the earlier part of the previous century and spent his life suffering from an illness that his family and friends were so ashamed of that it was brushed off as merely a personality trait: “He was a very nervous man.”

Now, just because we are equipped with medical terminology to describe such illnesses, we believe in a lot of cases that we have come ‘so far’ from the days of ‘backward’ Ireland.

But mental illness still remains where it was swept for generations of Irish history – out of sight, out of mind.

How many of us would be willing to tell possible employers or new friends that we suffer from a mental illness?

This is not just a reflection of the personal shame stamped on sufferers in society but also the common idea that those who suffer from any form of mental illness, irrelevant of its severity, are unstable and weak.

I know personally from conversations with my peers that many young people in particular don’t understand mental health. Hence our mis-use of the term “depressed”. It even appears in the options for how you’re feeling on Facebook!

Depressed isn’t a type of sadness or how you feel when you lose your favourite lip-gloss. Depression is an illness, just like diabetes or epilepsy or even a throat infection.

It is an illness that effects the centre of the human body, the centre of human functioning; the brain. If you found out you were a diabetic you would be prescribed insulin, if you were diagnosed with a throat infection you would take anti-biotic, yet frequently those who opt for medication for mental health issues are looked down upon for copping out.

Suicide is something that, unfortunately, is appearing more and more in the news since the beginning of the century.

On one hand  this is in fact a step forward for mental health as those who fall victim to mental illness are no longer being buried amongst the criminals and ‘unexpected tragedy’ is appearing less frequently in death notices  as people come to see that suicide isn’t something to be ashamed of. It is in fact a tragedy.

To think that someone was suffering to the extent that they believed the only way out was death should be enough to open our eyes as a society.

We need to stop referencing mental illnesses in derogatory fashions in order to slag one another. We need to stop using words such as “psycho” and “schizo” and “depression” in such flippant, derogatory terms.

We need to start taking mental health seriously.

Look around your lecture hall tomorrow. Statistically, 20 people around you will suffer from depression at some stage in their lives.

If HIV was so widespread, would you sit back and pretend it didn’t exist, or would you do your duty for future generations and begin to undo the harm caused by our predecessors (an increasingly common task for the youth of today)?

And would you ensure that mental health begins to receive the respect it deserves and those who live with these difficult illnesses are able to creep out from under the carpet and receive the treatment they need without ridicule? Let’s face it.

If you need someone to talk to, call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 1850 60 90 90.

You can also contact 1life on 1800 247 100 or text HELP to 51444.