Today is World Mental Health Day, and I mark it with the revelation that I have depression. One in four people will be affected by mental health problems at some point in their lives, and I am on the wrong end of those odds. Still, I am not alone: I know dozens of people who are affected by a rainbow of mental health problems. Sometimes, given my social circle, I forget that in our general culture, mental illness is still massively stigmatised.
And it is. There are many who do not believe that mental illness is “real”. Being “all in the head” is somehow distinct from physical illness. This is not true: many mental health problems require treatment, mental illnesses can be disabling, and the diseases of the mind/body distinction is false anyway. Despite this, when I go through bouts of depression, I am harangued by work colleagues about when I’ll be “over it” and back. Most days, I see tabloid newspapers screaming about how people are claiming disability benefits for depression. Of course they are. It can be debilitating.
Then there’s the treatment. I waited ages before I got any treatment. One dear friend of mine was twice referred to the wrong sort of counselling–only discovering this after having waited to receive this treatment for months. Another friend asked for bereavement counselling and was curtly informed there is a nine month waiting list for that. Treatment of mental illness leaves a lot to be desired.
Then there’s the having to explain to people that sometimes I won’t get out of bed all day, or I might run off in tears, or react strangely to something, and it’s not like there’s a magic wand to cure this problem. I’m different, basically, and that’s sometimes a little difficult.
Despite all of this, maybe I’m lucky–just a little bit lucky. As I mentioned, today is World Mental Health Day, and I have just given a run-down of the experience of a not-impoverished person living in the capital city of a developed country.
If I suffered from mental health problems somewhere else in the world, I’d probably be a lot worse off. Stigma is higher than that which is experienced in a reasonably-aware society. 4 in 5 people in developing countries do not receive treatment at all, even though treating a condition like depression is as successful as treating HIV with antiretrovirals. Mental health problems interact with other problems people face: people with HIV, cancer or other chronic conditions are more likely to experience depression, and as a result of their depression less likely to adhere to treatment regimens for their physical conditions.
And, of course, the elephant in the room: mental illness is a killer. Every 40 seconds, someone commits suicide.
There’s a lot to be done, and it needs to happen globally. Morally, we cannot let people continue to suffer from illness, and we need to get better at supporting people, both through treatment and through destigmatisation. Beyond morals, even to a cold capitalist it makes sense: improving mental health provides a big, happy workforce and a bunch of cheery consumers.
This is what World Mental Health Day is for: let us be aware of the vast public health problem in front of us, and give us the will to fix it.