The other day at work I saw a patient I had met in hospital talking to one of my coworkers. As I passed them my coworker called me over and asked to borrow my pen so I said hi to the patient. Two days later, when I was back at work, the same coworker came running over to me and asked me how I knew the patient. I was a little stumped, unwilling to compromise both the patient’s and my confidentiality and admit we met in a psychiatric hospital. So I told her I didn’t feel comfortable telling her. Hindsight of course, being a wonderful thing- if I’d been quick, I should have said I knew her through my mum or something. But my coworker kept pushing and asking questions about her, like, prying questions, so I said she’d been unwell. And my coworker might as well have lept up and punched the air when she said: ‘I KNEW it! Mental illness?’ and then, before I had a chance to answer, she literally asked me ‘is she violent?’
Right. Ok. Seriously?
It was one of those moments where you stop and ask yourself is this really happening, am I seriously having this conversation. I was too shocked, too taken aback to be angry. So I stumbled over my words and stammered that no, of course she wasn’t violet- she was one of the loveliest, gentlest women I knew. But my coworker just kept on banging on about the violence, and the shock had worn off and I was starting to get irritated. So I told her, ‘look, I have a mental illness. You’ve known me for how long now- am I violent? It’s one of those things that is a myth about people with mental illnesses- we aren’t violent!’ I thought if she could see that she worked with, and was friends with someone who had a mental illness, then she’d be able to challenge the stereotypes she had ingrained in her. I was just a little wrong.
She said, laughing, ‘Oh don’t be silly, you don’t have a mental illness, stop joking!’
I know stigma exists. I know there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misconceptions surrounding mental illness. Every day I hear people use mental illnesses as slurs, calling people ‘psychos’ or the weather ‘bipolar’ or saying they’re ‘so OCD’; at work, the girls joke ‘this place would send you to the mental’, and I have seen people on Facebook comment to their friends ‘go slit your wrists’ or ‘I’m ready to kill myself’. Often, my friends will ask me things like ‘is schizophrenia the one where you have a split personality’, or ‘is bipolar where you get mood swings every few minutes, because you’re not like that?’ And before I got sucked into the world of mental illness and was forced to learn about it myself, I couldn’t understand how that girl in my class could possibly cut herself (wouldn’t it hurt???), or why my friend with anorexia wouldn’t ‘just eat’. And I know that when people find out someone they know has a mental illness, they usually say something like ‘but they don’t look/seem depressed/anorexic/crazy’, or ‘they seem normal’.
But I think my colleague kind of, sort of, maybe took it one step further. Because instead of being surprised and saying something like ‘but you don’t look mentally ill’, or ‘I never would have guessed’ (which are along the lines of things I’ve heard in the past), she denied the possibility altogether. Presumably because I didn’t fit in to her preconceived notion of what a mentally ill person ‘Looked Like’ (in this case, violent).
I get that unless you have personal experience of something it’s a little hard to understand it. I don’t have, or personally know anyone with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, or Cystic Fibrosis, for example, so I have very little awareness of what those conditions mean for people, or how it impacts their every day life. So I get how it’s the same for mental illness- I’ve had friends and family members tell me that before they found out I was unwell, they’d held the same misconceptions and stereotypes that others have when it comes to mental health and mental illness. But honestly, I found the whole conversation with my colleague incredibly frustrating, and really quite shocking- that someone could have such ingrained ideas about what mental illness ‘looked like’, that they’d refuse to believe that the person standing in front of them could have one.
Naively, I thought people had moved beyond the notion that mentally ill people we violent, crazed, dangerous; locked up in insitutions, straight jackets, drooling and shuffling down corridors for life. Naively, I thought people were coming round to the idea that people with mental illnesses could be ordinary, every day people. That on our good days, we get out of bed, shower, dress- some of us can still go into town, or volunteer, or go to school or work or the gym, meet up with friends. That we could be from stable, affluent backgrounds, or we could have had a traumatic, unstable childhood. That we could be employed or unemployed, educated or uneducated, black or white, man or woman, old or young. Naively, I thought people were hearing the message that one in four of us in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, and realising that that could be them, or a family member or friend or someone they worked with.
I guess in my own experience, any time I’ve shared a post from Mind, or written a generic post to celebrate Mental Health Awareness week on Facebook, the same people that joke about being ‘ready for the mental’ or say that ‘she looks anorexic’, like the posts. And I wonder how many of them, really and truly, wouldn’t feel uncomfortable if I told them the reason I was off work for two months was because I was in a psychiatric hospital, or wouldn’t think ‘but you seem fine/aren’t violent/don’t talk to yourself while pushing a trolley in the street’ if I told them I had bipolar disorder. I don’t know. I think people, maybe, like to look like they support mentally ill people, because it’s the done thing, and because there is such a push at the moment for awareness, or because they can identify with feeling or being depressed or anxious- which usually, when raising awareness, are the conditions that are most talked about. But following my conversation with my coworker, I think when you say ‘mental illness’ instead of ‘depression and anxiety’, people step back and hold up their hands and go ‘woah there, that’s certified crazy’. For whatever reason, they can’t shake the image of the ‘mental health patient’ that has been fed to them by the media.
So maybe then it’s possible that this whole awareness/stigma busting campaign is only targeting part of the problem, some conditions, some misconceptions. Because the fact of the matter is, for all the campaigning that goes on, for all the awareness that is being raised, my coworker still couldn’t accept that I might be mentally ill because I didn’t fit in with what her stereotype of what mental illness looked like. And that kind of ignorance is pretty damn alarming.