One of the great media myths of the 21st century is that there’s a taboo against talking about mental illness. Please. Then how come I can’t open a newspaper or flick through my TV channels or browse social media without seeing someone go into grisly depth, often replete with sad selfies, about his latest bout of mental darkness? Far from taboo, having a mental illness, and talking about your mental illness, is all the rage. It’s the latest must-have. You’re no one unless you’ve had a mental episode. And I find this transformation of mental illness into a fashion accessory far worse than the old treatment of it as a taboo (which was very bad).
The latest people who have set out to ‘break the taboo’ on talking about mental illness – the worst enforced taboo in history! – are Princes William and Harry. As part of their Heads Together campaign they want to shatter the stigma around mental health (lads, there’s no stigma) by getting people, especially younger people, to open up about their mental travails. This week William even did a FaceTime chat with Lady Gaga to raise awareness about mental ill-health. Under the hashtag #OKtoSay, tweeters are being encouraged to gab about their ups and downs. It’s time to trade the ‘stiff upper lip’ for a wobbly lip, stoicism for confessed vulnerability, said William this week.
Now, anyone who raises so much as a peep of criticism of campaigns like this runs the risk of being branded a heartless bastard. So let me make it clear that I appreciate that William and Harry had a horrendous experience early in life, and it undoubtedly shaped them enormously. I respect them for coming through it in good moral shape. But I’m not buying the idea that their mental-health campaign is brave or necessary. I think it’s dangerous.
It’s dangerous firstly because it springs from and reinforces the weird 21st-century trend for actively inviting people to define themselves as mentally ill. Everything from exam stress to general anxiety to feeling up one day and down the next – which used to be called ‘moods’ but is now called ‘bipolar disorder’ – is being recategorised as a mental illness or disorder. Everyday emotions and experiences have been co-opted into the field of mental health. You think you’re shy? Nope, you have social anxiety disorder. Do you have an awkward friend? Maybe he has Asperger's. Finding it hard to cope with your workload? Check out this Workplace Stress and Anxiety Disorder Survey to find out if really you are mentally ill.
Virtually all of life’s struggles and people’s personality quirks are being medicalised. And in some cases treated: Britain is said to be in the grip of a ‘psychiatric drug epidemic’, as the number of prescriptions for mental-health drugs rose by an astonishing 500 percent between 1992 and 2014. It’s like something out of Huxley’s Brave New World, in which people are given a mind drug that suppresses their ‘malice and bad tempers’. And people actively seek a diagnosis. A few years ago, a psychiatrist told the BBC that patients come to her saying, ‘I want to be bipolar’. She said the desire for a mental-illness diagnosis often reflects ‘a person’s aspiration for higher social status’. Yes, you can now boost your standing in respectable society by having a mental illness. This is how cool it has become to be mentally ill.
The dire impact of the must-have mental illness is most clear among the young. I can’t remember the last time I met a student who didn’t claim to have a mental illness of some kind. A few weeks of stress over their exams and they think they’re Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They post long social-media confessions of mental ill-health and everyone says ‘How brave’, overlooking that it’s really not brave to do something everyone else is doing; to say ‘I am mentally ill’ in a world in which you can’t swing a tote bag in Waterstone’s without hitting 20 books about being mentally ill. Everyone’s mentally ill; you aren’t special – you’re boring.
The problem here is that people are being told it’s cool not to be able to cope, to embrace the identity of fragility. They are invited to think of themselves as incapable, to build their personality around being pathetic. That’s terrible. The generous reading is that this ultimately expresses society’s inability to provide people with a sense of purpose in their lives, with a moral framework for making sense of the world and our place within it, and this gives rise to a situation where people come to understand the problems they face not as social, political or economic, but as psychic. This is true, and it’s a very worrying phenomenon. But at the same time, don’t people also have choice and autonomy, however diminished these things might now be? Can’t they refuse to adopt the mental-illness tag?
The other really bad thing about the mental-illness fashion is what it does to mental-health services: it clogs them up. It distracts the attention of doctors away from those who are genuinely in need: the clinically depressed, the schizophrenic, the suicidal. I’m sorry, but I think it is awful that we live in such self-obsessed, entitled times that people stressed about work or in a very bad temper are jumping the queue over people in true despair. Get out of the waiting room, for heaven’s sake.
We shouldn’t ditch the stiff upper lip; we should rehabilitate it, and encourage the young in particular to exercise it. Having a stiff upper lip doesn’t mean being an arrogant muppet who thinks nothing in life ever touches him – it simply means believing that you have the moral and mental wherewithal to cope with things, even when they get difficult. It means being an adult, being autonomous, and emphasising your strengths, not your weaknesses. The real taboo today is against saying, ‘I can cope with life, with the help of my friends, and I refuse to define myself as weak or ill’. Let’s break that taboo. Now that would be brave.