“Saturday 10 October is World Mental Health Day, hosted by the World Federation of Mental Health. To help mark the occasion, we’re raising awareness of what can be done to ensure that people with mental health problems can live with dignity.”
– Mental Health Foundation
We all know someone who suffers from mental illness. Personally I know many people, including myself, for whom mental health is a huge issue. One in four people experiences mental ill-health at some point in their life. The charity Sane says:
“There is a wide spectrum of conditions, including anxiety, addiction, obsession, phobia, depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, schizophrenia or an eating disorder. These conditions can lead to profound emotions of despair and thoughts of suicide. People’s experiences can often be further complicated by alcohol or drug addiction.”
I have personal experience of the mental health system in the United Kingdom, and one thing I can tell you is that, unless you encounter a really good professional who will advocate for you, it is not a pretty sight. Even within the NHS, mental health is often ignored and swept under the carpet. At sixteen I was told by a hospital psychiatrist that I should either actually kill myself or stop wasting his time; he also made derogatory comments about my weight (for the record, I was the perfect weight for my height at the time!). At twenty-three I was told by a psychiatrist that there was absolutely nothing wrong with me. I felt like that was my last chance to get help, and that I had been dismissed. I walked home and attempted suicide.
I found myself in ‘Day Treatment’ where we were in hospital during the daytime but slept at home, presumably to save the beds for ‘properly ill people’. During Day Treatment I was treated like a child who needed to be occupied with sewing and art workshops I didn’t want to participate in. I had no choice. I ended up as an inpatient for a few days and my experience was echoed by the stories of the other patients I spoke to while I was there. We were left to stagnate. No therapies, no workshops even offered, we spent all of our time in the television rooms watching daytime TV, in the canteen getting our terrible hospital-grade food, in our rooms staring at the walls, or smoking during the ten minutes every hour we were allowed outside into the enclosed garden for some ‘fresh air’. It was a horrible experience and I couldn’t wait to get out.
The one thing I have found within the UK mental health system, until I found my absolutely wonderful psychiatrist, is that until you have actively attempted to kill yourself, nobody wants to know. A ‘triage’ nurse at the hospital called me an attention-seeker. The crisis team told me to just take my medication and go to bed – if that had been possible, surely I wouldn’t have been calling the crisis team? The crisis team told another patient I was in Day Treatment with, sternly, “I can’t understand you. Phone back when you’ve stopped crying.” The mental health system is failing mentally ill people, and there have been thousands of preventable suicides – preventable because, if these people had not slipped through the net, they might have received adequate treatment and recovered.
There is no dignity in having a mental illness. We are expected, in forms we write to claim the benefit money we need to feed ourselves with because so many of us are unable to hold down paid jobs, to pour our hearts out, to reveal the darkest thoughts we have to a complete stranger. We are grilled at assessments in order to be ‘allowed’ those benefits, as to whether we are truly mental or just ‘putting it on’ to get the pittance one receives in Employment and Support Allowance. We are treated like fakers and shirkers. We are treated as subhuman.
A radical shift is needed in the way we view mental illness. We need to stop viewing mentally ill people as dangerous or pitiful, and we need to stop assuming that a huge percentage of mentally ill people are not really unwell, but simply lazy and workshy. We need to begin to treat mentally ill people with compassion, dignity and respect. Sadly, my experience of the system, and of wider society, is that we are treated with scorn, disrespect and thoughtlessness.
If you need some help with navigating the world as a mentally unwell person or helping a mentally unwell person you know, here are some links and phone numbers you can contact.