We need a ‘me too’ movement for mental illness and suicide

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Three high-profile people recently lost their lives to suicide. Fashion designer Kate Spade, chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain, and (perhaps well-known by association) Inés Zorreguieta, sister of queen of the Netherlands. Still fresh in my memory is the suicide of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and actor Robin Williams. These stories are not easy to read for those of us who have come so close to losing our lives in a similar way.

Every life lost to suicide is tragic because every human being is valuable, means something to someone and has so much to offer the world. However, I can fully understand how someone can make the decision to end their life.

If you find yourself in the depths of depression, suicide seems like the greatest consolation. This is why I don’t judge any of these people for what they believed is the best way out because I also once found myself contemplating a very similar end.

I once read something that said: “No one commits suicide because they want to die. Then why do they do it? Because they want to stop the pain.”

Mental illness needs a ‘me too’ movement 

Suicide is an emotive, uncomfortable and controversial subject. A lot has been written about these suicides in the past few days and I have been both encouraged and angered by what I’ve read.

As these deaths received so much publicity it might make it easier for more people to talk about depression and suicide. What is really needed is a ‘me too’ movement for mental illness to raise the profile of conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar and PTSD.

It might raise the profile of mental illness – how awesome would it be if this category of illnesses were considered as serious as diabetes or heart disease? What if these deaths helped to remove the long-standing stigma associated with mental illness?

However, I am also angered by the lack of insight into what caused these people to take their own lives. The absence of compassion is concerning and devastating. Reading some of the Twitter commentary on these celebrity deaths is enough to make one lose complete faith in humanity. The media should also improve how they report on suicide.

We need to talk about suicide

Very few people want to engage with the fact that people kill themselves. How often are victims accused of being selfish, crazy or psycho? Labels hurt people. They are cruel. They cause people not to seek treatment for fear of judgement.

Depression is a legitimate medical condition

“In my mind, there’s nothing our generation should be more ashamed of than people with severe mental illness being punished for a disease they can’t do anything about. ” Fran Quigley

Depression isn’t just a case of “having the blues”. I spotted this beautiful statement by Kelly Risbey (@MntlHlthWarrior) on my Twitter feed some time ago: “If your friend was battling cancer, you’d send flowers, call, email, stop by. Do all these same things for your friend battling #depression.”

Don’t you sometimes wish that mental illness could be diagnosed with a blood test, or be visible on an X-ray? It would eliminate all those “snap out of it” or “it is all in your head” comments. No wonder so many people suffer in silence. Those who live with chronic conditions such as clinical depression, anxiety, PTSD or bipolar should be treated in the same way as someone living with diabetes, high blood pressure or asthma.

Check on your strong friend

This is such a powerful statement – check on those who you least expect to be struggling. The friend who tells you that they’re fine. That person who is always smiling. It could be a sibling who appears to have a picture perfect life. Is all really well?

 

 

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“He’s psycho” and other hurtful words

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Something that really bugs me is the language around mental illness – I think this is one of the reasons why there is so much stigma, fear and misinformation. Changing the way we speak about mental illness is, in my opinion, one of the most important ways to counter society’s ignorance about anything to do with mental health.

How often do you hear these words? “He’s crazy”, “she’s psycho” or “she’s gone totally schizo on me”. I hear these phrases being bandied about all the time. I hear something like this almost daily where I work.

But – would someone be as uncaring to say something like “I’m getting really tired of this cancer of yours” or “What?! You mean there is someone with cystic fibrosis just walking around? Can’t we lock these people up?” or “I have to work late now because Joe has had a heart attack or something. Some people will do anything to get out of work”. what depression is

Just think about that. These kinds of statements would make anyone seriously unpopular. Yet – the same standards don’t apply for someone who has clinical depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc.

What if we treated every illness the way we treat mental illness? Why isn’t mental illness treated with the same level of compassion as any other chronic illness – because that is what mental illness is – a chronic condition just like diabetes.

I know how frightening it is to be in a room where this kind of stuff is said – the fear of people finding out and the associated stigma is sometimes worse than living with this condition. But then I read something that says “your fear of stigma is part of the illness”. And that got me thinking. Why must I be silent about what I’m struggling with? This is my story. This is my reality. This is why I recently decided to add a photograph of myself to my ‘about’ page. Why should I hide? It starts with me – I have to treat myself with the same respect and concern I would show to a cancer patient. Depression is just a chemical imbalance, it isn’t a flaw in my character.

 

Chilling images of mental illness in Africa

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In some of the most war-ravaged countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, severely mentally disabled men and women are shackled and locked away for years on end. This photograph of a young man chained to the floor of Juba Central Prison in Sudan (now South Sudan) is featured on the cover of Robin Hammond’s book, “Condemned.” January 2011 photo by Robin Hammond/Panos

This series of photographs, published in a book called Condemned by photographer Robin Hammond, has been on my mind for days.

In war-ravaged countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, severely mentally disabled men and women – even children – are chained and locked away for years on end. Mental illness is a neglected issue everywhere – and it is horrific to think about how people are suffering. Many of these people – probably the majority – are undiagnosed and receive little or no treatment.

This is what the photographer had to say about his project:

“I’ve spent my career documenting human rights issues but I’ve never come across a more neglected or vulnerable group than the mentally disabled in African countries that are in, or recovering from, crises.”

These images break my heart. Wouldn’t it be amazing if people living with mental illness could experience the same kind of respect, compassion and access to treatment as people living with any other illnesses?