Right message; wrong language
Tomorrow is the last day of Children’s Mental Health Week. It ran from the 7th to the 13th of February and yet I only just found out about it today. I watched a video of a young teenager speaking about mental health, specifically his own mental health. As an Award winning actor he contacted well with his young audience, and put the message across eloquently and passionately. He recounted his own mental health struggles as a nine year old, how he was able to speak to his mother about his feelings, and how he found inner strength to find strategies to help himself.
In no way do I decry that he agreed to give the talk, and the message he wanted to share. Perhaps I should give him more credit for his input, but the language and gesturing came across more like a performance and I question how far it was appropriate for the organisers to direct him to speak of ‘mental’ health problems in the way they did.
Mental illness covers a range of emotional, psychological, and cognitive issues that run much deeper than the natural anxiety of a young person struggling with social and familial situations, schoolwork, acting commitments and the pressure that must come with performance. Of course he was anxious. Of course he was under stress. And very rightly and sensibly he spoke with his mother, underlining the value of a loving, supportive home-life.
‘Growing Together’ is this year’s theme for Children’s Mental Health Week. It’s about mutual support, encouragement, developing well-being and emotional resilience, as well as celebrating success and emotional growth. This is very welcome, since emotional intelligence is the cornerstone of good mental health. The message makes it crystal clear that speaking of mental health does not equate to speaking of mental ‘ill-health’, that it’s also about emotional issues, and that family and social networks need supporting. This is the message the young man should have been allowed to emphasise, because that had been his experience, one of opening up to his mother sharing his burden and growing together.
People everywhere – children, teenagers, adults, the elderly – have “mental health”, just as we have “physical health”, and “emotional health”. Sometimes problems arise, reminders that we need to take care of ourselves. But that does not make them major issues, or problems, or disorders. What they do is to remind us that we are human, vulnerable, not invincible machines. It’s why we laugh, cry, get confused, agitated, need affection, distance. We are multi-dimensional beings, with multi-dimensional needs.
Language of mental ‘health’ and ‘illness’
In recent years society and the media have managed to conflate a whole range of identifiable conditions under the generic term “mental health issues”.
A brief search online clarifies the medical understanding of “mental health”:
- the absence of a mental disorder
- cognitive, behavioural, emotional well-being
- how people think, behave, feel
- as affecting daily living, relationships, physical health
and identifies the range and affects of “mental illness / disorder”:
- some affect mood (e.g., depression or bipolar disorder)
- some affect behaviour (e.g., eating disorders, addictive behaviours, obsessive-compulsive disorder)
- some affect thinking (e.g., generalized anxiety disorders, social anxiety disorders, panic disorders, phobias)
- personality disorders (e.g., antisocial, narcissistic, complex attachment disorder)
- psychotic disorders (e.g., schizophrenia)
- trauma-related disorders (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder)
There are also lists of mental illness warning signs: long-lasting sadness or irritability, extreme fluctuations of mood, excessive fear, worry, or anxiety, social withdrawal, and dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits.
Being mentally ill
When mental illness strikes these systems have probably broken down, and we speak of “mental breakdown” or “nervous breakdown”. Often we cannot find the words to say what’s going on inside; cannot understand enough of what we feel to ask for help; cannot ask for help because we don’t know we need it. As a young child I had depression. But I didn’t know it at the time, except that I didn’t feel ‘right’. At five years old I expressed my feelings as being “all irritable”. Only later, at 18 and having been diagnosed with psychotic depression and a personality disorder, did I look back and think, oh that’s what I was going through. But because it was a mental illness, I lived in a deep dark fog of confusion and despair that was my reality. Subsequent diagnoses of bipolar with psychosis, complex attachment disorder, and autism enabled me to reflect on what was happening to me when I first went on medication at 15. Everything fell into place. But it took decades, while I continued believing I was weird, out-of-kilter, evil, and – bottom line – better off out of it for everyone’s sake.
There was no insight and no words to give any meaning to my inner turmoil. And this is why I have such a problem with people – young people, older people, most especially famous people – who speak about mental health struggles and how they recovered. It is not helpful and often reflects badly on people who don’t ask for help because they don’t understand that there is a problem, because what they are experiencing runs way too deep.
And so, for many they’re left thinking, “Oh, OK. So looking back I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t seek help because obviously I didn’t care. It wasn’t serious enough.”
Or outsiders who say, “Why didn’t you open up sooner? Try to get help. You just want attention. Too lazy to get a job. Pull your weight.”
And that is completely the wrong message to give, and to leave.
By conflating health and disorder, and melding cognitive, behavioural, and emotional states, the needs of those with lifelong, possibly invisible conditions like schizophrenia, PTSD, ADHD, or clinical depression are subsumed, questioned, and ultimately invalidated within society. These illnesses are debilitating, some are so life changing as to be classified as disabilities.
World Mental Health Day is always the 10th of October. It seems that other mental health awareness events are more moveable feasts, and I have no problem with that except that clear advertising should announce exactly what is going on, and when. I totally agree with having Mental Health Awareness events, and Children’s Mental Health Week is no exception.
But the emphasis should be on Health: promoting, maintaining, and supporting Good Mental Health.
Because we are definitely worth it.