#MHAW2017 – Why we must keep talking about mental health.

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It is Mental Health Awareness Week – seven solid days in which the aim is to raise awareness about mental health.

You might be thinking, ‘Oh bloody hell… not this mental health thing again’. Well, Im’ma stop you right there, because yes, whether you’d like to admit it or not, we do still need to talk about mental health.

Over the last few years, there’s been massive progress in the way we talk about mental health. It’s become increasingly okay to admit that we’re not okay all of the time. Having said that, we are still only at the beginning of the journey of destigmatising mental illness. So, to contribute just a tiny sliver to this ongoing conversation, I wanted to briefly touch on two points today. Firstly, men need to start sharing more about their mental health issues. Secondly, how just because one conversation about mental health has opened up doesn’t mean we can stop there – we must continue to talk about it, particularly about the mental illnesses that are less talked about.

Now, we’ve all heard that stigma prevents people from getting the appropriate treatment, which is why it’s important to get rid of this stigma behind mental illnesses. And this is true! Which is why it’s doubly important for men to be able to feel comfortable enough to talk about their mental health without society beating them down and calling them pussies or to just ‘man up’. Statistics currently say that the female to male prevalence of depression ratio is about 9:1. This is exceedingly misleading because it’s also well-known that men are less likely to present to primary care with mood problems. This then reflects on the fact that male suicide rates are substantially higher than female. Naturally, the higher rates in females could be down to gender differences. Scientists hypothesised that women are genetically (or hormonally) more predisposed to depression – and yes, a number of studies have identified that there is a subset of women are particularly susceptible to the mood-destabilising effects of oestrogen withdrawal that are experienced monthly, after pregnancy, or during menopause.

But! This doesn’t take away from the fact that a large number of men still suffer from depression, and probably a lot more than we think precisely because men are less likely to talk about it. So… This week is as good a time as any for all the men out there to start their conversation about how they suffer from mental health issues. Talk about it – and know that it’s okay to not be okay. Know that it’s not weak by any means to struggle with your mental health.

Don’t get me wrong – with depression being the leading reason for taking sick leaves in the UK, it is bloody fantastic that people are talking about it more nowadays. But we mustn’t equate ‘mental illness’ with ‘depression and anxiety’. We mustn’t forget that there is still a whole other three-quarters of mental illness out there that we are still pretty silent about. I’m talking about less ‘palatable’ diseases such as schizophrenia, other psychoses, personality disorders, PTSD, eating disorders, bipolar disorders… These are still some of the most stigmatised aspects of mental health, and if we aren’t prepared to discuss these just as we do with depression and anxiety, the many, many people who suffer from those illnesses will continue to feel alienated and alone. Talk about it, share insights, educate others about the realities of these illnesses, and replace stereotyped beliefs with accurate facts. These are the first steps  we must take in our quest to kick mental health stigma to the curb.

The lack of conversation isn’t the only reason that explains the persistent stigma about these mental illnesses. The lack of accurate and representative portrayals of mental illness in the media is a contributing factor, too. The media has a tendency to perpetuate the idea of dangerousness and violence when reporting about mental illnesses, and these have been found to increase stigmatising attitudes amongst the public. In films, as well – the majority of characters that are written to have schizophrenia are portrayed in a violent manner, with over a third depicted as homicidal. I doubt this was the filmmaker’s intensions, but these negative and grossly exaggerated representations only reinforce the stigmatising beliefs towards people with psychosis.

So, yes, despite the improvement mental health awareness has had in the last few years, there is still plenty to be done and to be talked about in regards to mental illness. It’s important to keep talking about mental health, especially when there is still fuck all funding to provide adequate mental health care. Last year, £115 million was raised towards mental health research. That sounds like a lot of money, but when you put it into perspective, that’s only £8 invested in research per person affected by mental illness. This is over 22 times less than funds raised and spent on cancer research. (Note – I’m not saying cancer research doesn’t deserve this amount of funding – Lord knows it does – I’m just saying mental health needs a hell of a lot more.)

It’s important to keep talking about mental health because for every story shared, there’s at least one person who will hear it and know that they are not alone.

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