Stigma and World Mental Health Day

Yesterday, on Twitter, I saw that Morrisons was being criticised for having an ‘Asylum’ themed decoration on display and justifying it by saying it was all in the spirit of Hallowe’en. Today is World Mental Health Day.

One of the conversations I had yesterday online was with someone who suggested that the Asylum-themed decoration wasn’t the biggest battle to be fighting in the ‘mental health’ world. Amid services being decimated, a lack of intelligent planning and poor commissioning, that’s absolutely true — although it depends a little where on the spectrum you lie.

When I saw the ‘asylum — do not enter’ Hallowe’en fun, it took me back to my childhood. It took me back to thinking of how different I felt because I had things going on in my head which I couldn’t understand. Unfortunately, the result of my confusing thoughts was quite visible because I pulled all my hair out. When I went into a classroom or any environment with other kids, other people knew there was something different about me and knew that it was in my head. I have to say, I wasn’t bullied at school and nor did I have a miserable time as a result — I got a bit of minor teasing about it but I don’t think it was any different from others having other issues raised about being tall or short. Some people thought I was odd but I think that I was lucky with my fellow students. The real pain was all internalised. I felt it was my fault I was different. I hated the times I had to go out of class to go see the psychiatrist (I’m not sure how many people at school knew that but I don’t think it would have surprised anyone). I am fortunate enough not to have needed to access mental health services as an adult, but I did as a child and I acutely remember the shame and embarrassment I felt.

Why am I saying this? I don’t think I’ve mentioned it publicly very often before (I think there’s one blogpost back in the day which alluded to it). I am saying it because I’m thinking that as long as we think of addressing stigma, and think we’ve ‘got it’, we have shops making children’s toys that refer to ‘asylums’ as scary places. So even on World Mental Health Day in 2016, we have to challenge companies that see mental illness as something to frightened of. I’m thinking of those children and young people who have family members who are mentally ill and how they respond to the jokes.

I scoff sometimes about stigma-busting and awareness days. It’s because I think ‘awareness’ can be a cop-out. Awareness is easy. World Mental Health Day always seems to focus on rather bland themes that affect or could affect everyone — access to psychological therapies (this year’s theme) is all well and good — it really is, but we can’t encourage peole to talk about the more challenging stuff without providing people to listen and providing assistance that is needed.

In my ideal world, I’d like to see more than coffee mornings and hashtags. I’d like to see some responsibility from those who provide services to deliver a good quality and if they are not commissioned to provide services at a level which they know are needed, to actively challenge and shout about it.

There are so many battles to fight around mental health and getting it noticed. Some are the big ones about funding and quality inpatient services, about kindness and about linking with social care and preventative work and some are about stigma and remembering the feelings of others when we create displays in shops and funny t-shirts. We can fight both battles at once and it doesn’t have to be an either/or.

When I think about world mental health day, today, I think about the child I was, confused, with little information, feeling like I was the only person in the world that had a bit of a wonky brain and how much a bit more awareness and understanding could have helped. Not so much awareness from other people but awareness from me. Not everyone needs to talk to others to gain that, sometimes it’s about putting the information out, making it less scary and not creating Hallowe’en decorations without a little more thought.

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