• How should we be talking about mental illness?

    ZHUCHI's community, recently lost someone we all respected greatly. She was a lady who talked the talk, about walking the walk and as a result, made an amazing contribution to our community's awareness about mental health issues. Personally and professionally. Even at the end, donations for ARAFMI (Association of Relatives And Friends of the Mentally Ill) were requested in lieu of flowers.

    She lost the battle against mental illness.  

    At the celebration of her life, an eclectic cross-section of the the community gathered, and one thing was abundantly clear.  We may all talk about it differently (some as clinicians, some as educators, some as parents, neighbours, siblings, friends), but the message is clear: EVERYBODY knows someone who's been affected by mental illness, and most show great compassion for it.  

    Despite agreeing there is always the need for more to be done, I do believe understanding of mental illness is growing in our community. There are probably a number of reasons for this: Sexier advertising, with attractive, easy-to-relate-to actors in "real-life" scenarios make it more palatable; it features more and more in the news and more frequently through an empathic, not punitive lens; we hear about mental health issues vicariously through other news - child sex abuse investigations, refugees, returning veterans; high profile people have started to speak openly about their own mental illnesses; health promotion campaigns occurring across the globe are improving mental health literacy (the Time to Change campaign in Britain is a noteworthy example); and sadly, tragic events, like the death of Robyn Williams.

    All spark a global conversation about mental illness.

    And it's clear that the BEST way to talk about mental illness is to:  Just talk about it...

    Whatever our background, if we seriously want to make a difference, we would be willing to speak about mental illness in two significant ways:

    1.  Speak of our own experience, if we indeed have one.  It completely normalises things for people.  As a consumer advocate, if I ever give a talk, the thing most often said at the end is "now it makes sense."  The close second is "I've experienced that".  All I do is talk about my experience the same way someone with cancer might talk about theirs and then the conversation starts.

    2.  The second and definitely the most difficult, is to be a mild-mannered activist. Gently correct people when you hear them express ignorance or inaccuracy around mental illness, the same way you would if you heard someone say "that kid's brain cancer? Well he should just try a bit harder in school, that would sort it out." Even if people aren't being intentionally rude, we should try and find a way to set them straight. We owe this to those we know with experience of mental illness.

    ZHUCHI asked a friend (he's a writer, blogger, communications aficionado) how he thought we should be talking about mental illness.  He sent me this:

    Mental illness is only a stigma if we as a society continue to make it one. Hell, it's hard enough to deal with a disease or severe illness without adding social rejection into the mix. Which is why I'm always frank, open and honest about mine.

    I'm very fortunate to be extremely high-functioning, these days at least. But I know all about the social stigmatism that comes with it. For a while I embraced it even. But now I simply talk about it like I'd talk about getting pneumonia or breaking a bone. Serious, but not something that should make you a social pariah.

    It's only through talking about it that we can break down misconceptions and challenge some of the notions about mental health that so many inherently seem to hold.

    For those who may stumble across this blog looking for help or seeking answers.  ZHUCHI is not a clinical service, so our best advice would be to talk to someone you trust and ask for help from the GP.  Most importantly, don't pretend, don't brush it under the carpet and hope it goes away.  

    If you're worried about "sounding mad" or other such fears, remember the GP, psychologist or counsellor has undertaken psychotherapy training, psychology courses to become qualified to help you make sense of that stuff.  You can also ask to see someone different if you need to; any ethical therapist will help refer you on.  

    If you are a friend or a family member and you've stumbled here, then just keep on doing what you're already doing - read up on things and start another conversation!



    For more ideas on how to talk about mental illness:  TED ideas worth spreading

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