Siobhan O’Neill is a health psychologist and professor of mental health sciences at Ulster University. She is currently leading several studies on mental health and suicide in Northern Ireland.
It seems that we can’t move nowadays with mental health awareness; the latest being Princes Harry and William, and Princess Katherine, all throwing their weight behind campaigns to get people talking about mental health.
About time too. With (at least) one in four people suffering from a mental illness at some point in their lifetime, one in ten of our school children self-harming and suicide rates rising steadily, this is a conversation we desperately need to have.
In Northern Ireland, our politicians are starting to take note and it was heartening to see commitments to improving mental health services in many of the main parties’ election manifestoes.
From the outside it looks as mental health awareness is the cause de jour. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you’ll find out what people really think about mental illness and those with mental health problems.
From the relentless mocking of Sinead O’Connor following her recent disappearance, to the straitjacket “mental is the new black” joke in last week’s Eurovision song contest, to the media reporting and attention given to the tiny minority of murders by people with a mental illness; there remains a clear undercurrent of hate, fear and ignorance surrounding these conditions.
In recent interviews Natasha Devon, the now ex-mental health champion for schools in England, described the abuse levelled at her when she spoke out about mental health in school children and the impact of policy.
In surveys we state that we support people with mental health problem; in practice, many of us behave very differently. Whilst I wholeheartedly support any efforts to change public attitudes, I fear that we need something fairly radical to change that anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the evidence from NI is consistent and clear, too many people delay in seeking treatment for mental health problems, many never ask for help, and around one in three who die by suicide have never sought help for a mental health problem.
In the meantime their illnesses are preventing them from achieving their potential and negatively affecting their families, communities and society as a whole.
The reality is that anti-stigma campaigns can fall flat because simply providing information about the myriad of mental illnesses and the rare but fascinating symptoms, can leave people feeling even more scared and uncertain about how to respond to others who have mental health conditions, and even more reluctant to disclose their own mental health symptoms when they arise.
Raising awareness of suicide by giving details of the methods of death and simplistic explanations can, in fact, be very harmful. The best and most effective way to battle the stigma that surrounds mental illness is for people who we already know and respect to come forward and say that they have had a mental health problem.
That means famous people, not just saying that they support this cause, but saying “that was me, I’m ok now, ask for help”.
Mental illness is a sad and unfortunate part of life, it can affect any one of us; the high achievers, the creatives, the performers and the sports stars; those in business, politics, industry and education.
So I would ask all of those in public life, who have influence, to give serious consideration to “coming out”, to say, without shame or embarrassment, “I am one of the ones”.
The many who have already done this are already making a real difference. I look forward to the time when it would seem bizarre to refer to people who talk about their own mental health struggles as courageous and brave, but right now that seems a long way off.