Friday, 17 April 2020

Mental Illness is more than just depression

Last year I was really honoured to be asked to give one of the keynote speeches at Equity's first ArtsMind Symposium. I had been invited to discuss the journey that I had been on whilst initiating the #time4change Mental Health Charter, and I also got to discuss the highs and lows of running a college that is taking a whole school approach to mental health.

BAPAM had recently published their consultation paper about the mental health difficulties our industry faces and had also made some recommendations about a more productive and helpful way to move forward. Interestingly they were recommending a whole school approach as the most effective, and also discussed the possibility of moving towards a clinician lead system in drama colleges.  The MTA has only ever operated with such a system, so it was interesting to discuss the realities of this (The MTA now being in its 11th year). The synopsis was this really - early intervention is key, and by getting our community to understand that mental health is no different to physical health, we could help to prevent or decrease a personal mental health crisis. See the physio when you first suspect that there's an injury, and you're more likely to make a quicker (and often stronger) recovery, see a mental health specialist when you first recognise some symptoms and the same rules apply.  The difficulty being of course that most of us recognise early signs of physical illnesses, but very few of us recognise early signs of mental illnesses. Indeed that was the entire point of the charter - to get those symptoms (and maladaptive coping mechanisms) more widely known.

Within my speech though I also spoke at length at how I felt that the mental health conversation had gotten sideswiped by the conversation around wellbeing.  I noted that having campaigned for 6 years to have a more honest conversation about mental health, somehow in the past year or so the conversation had been sanitised. As great as it was to see more and more people recognising their own struggles and indeed naming them as part of their process, or as a way to get 'the message' out there, the conversation had taken an interesting diversion, and one which I felt wasn't particularly helpful.

Mental Health had somehow turned into Wellbeing and in doing so we had lost Mental Illnesses within the discussion. A social media statement about a bad anxiety day usually turned into a list of people saying that it would be OK, that they were around if that person needed somebody to talk to, or people just sharing their own mental health struggles in a bid I suspect to show the original poster that they were not alone. What I noted though was that it was unusual to see a possible solution in the replies. It was rare to see a response asking whether the person had checked in with their doctor. For a surprisingly large number of mental illnesses, you can expect to live in a symptom-free world. Yet the answers to the posts didn't have that expectation or offer up that hope.

Wellbeing was everywhere. For every great mental health article there would be one stating that the 'cure' was much simpler than people realised. One of my students actually wrote a great ranting post about how if it really was as simple as eating a healthier diet (for example), don't you think that they would have tried it? The reality was much harsher, and by 'helpfully' sharing the Daily Mail's latest take on 'How to cure depression' they were actually unwittingly sharing a belief that mental illnesses were avoidable. That it was a weakness of the person, as opposed to a genetic, chemical or environmental cause.

Then somebody else pointed out to me the dangers of these articles. For somebody who is seriously unwell and who has potentially lost their grasp on reality, reading all these 'cures' was actually feeding the illness not satisfying a cure. As they limped from article to article believing that each one would 'make them feel OK', they were also getting more and more unwell.

I noted in my speech that we had completely whitewashed the ugly side of mental illness. How self-destructive it can be, how an illness can almost manipulate a person's personality to make decisions that they would never make when well. Some illness really do take over the person's personality - we've seen it time and time again at college, as people slowly alienate themselves from their friends because reality is moving further and further away from them. I could go on - but you get the picture.

Mental illnesses don't manifest themselves in the way that many people think. The critically depressed person isn't necessarily the one that's telling you that they're low - indeed they're more likely to be the one that's telling you that they're fine. Anxiety isn't just about feeling worried - the physical symptoms are often more debilitating. Basically what I'm saying is what we see on people's social media might be a manifestation of something rather serious going on for somebody, so maybe it's better to say nothing rather than piling on to tell whoever that they're damaging everybody else's mental health. Maybe right now they are so fragile we should just leave them be (as hard as that is).

Our words are powerful and whilst a statement can often feel like an empowering thing to do I wonder if it is? Report accounts to the relevant complaint handles then just block them. Don't go back to see what they've done 'this time' . . . walk away from it. Do we have to announce that we've blocked or reported someone? Do we have to encourage others to do the same? Could we all just use our own autonomy and trust that others will do the same? If it's really bad and you feel really strongly about it, could you sound your battle cry offline? Literally, the world is vulnerable right now, so it doesn't take much encouragement for us all to rush to 'protect' people or in our case an industry that is struggling. However, there's a difference between the lone warrior and the organised hate groups.

We are all throwing the 'Be Kind' hashtag around, whilst very often have forgotten to do the same ourselves. Many people will discuss the impact of a feud on their own mental health, but what 'if' the person that your fighting against is ill and you just don't recognise those symptoms? For sure even an ill person can take responsibility for their actions and their words (unless they're psychotic), but can you be sure that your response won't tip them over the edge? Is the defence of 'well they're not being kind' a valid excuse for us to stoop to their level?

Words matter right now probably more than ever. . . but remaining curious to the possibility of the ugly side of mental illness might make a big difference too.

Stay safe

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