Why mental health needs public champions not just information…

Siobhan O’Neill is a 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.

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  • Katyusha

    Thank you for this. From the bottom of my heart.

  • jm

    Thank you for the article. I agree with the sentiment that when public figures admit that they have experienced mental illness and have got though it by asking for and receiving help, it helps lessen the stigma. But, if you are a public figure in a position of authority , what do you expose yourself to, if you admit to a mental illness that can revisit you, in spite of all your knowledge and safeguarding? Would the public nowadays be happy to know about their prime minister’s black dog days? Did Alastair Campbell talk about his ongoing bouts of depression at the time he was Tony’s fixer? People in the public eye maintain a persona to protect themselves just like we all do, it is still a very big ask to expect anyone to expose this kind of chink in their armour and I’d call anyone who does it brave for the forseeable future.

  • Granni Trixie

    Surely educating the public about the nature and spectrum of mental health is key in makng everyday life more negotiable for people with such challenges? It could be integrated into the curriculum, I’m sure. For example as an English teacher I know that I could integrate materials about the topic into lessons.

  • Siobhan O’Neill

    I totally agree. I’ve grappled with this myself when considering whether to talk about my own history. For anyone who’s pone to anxiety, or bi polar disorder, the revelations that seemed like a good idea at the time, can form part of the low times later. On the other hand, many people find that being open about their struggles helps them lead an authentic life and promotes recovery.
    I’m not saying that everyone must do it. But those who do, really do make a difference. And we all have those wee cracks, the vulnerabilities that make us unique and human, regardless of whether we have had a mental illness….

  • Siobhan O’Neill

    Good point, and I would suggest that information about common mental illnesses would be very helpful. But in terms of breaking down stigma, all the research shows that information alone does not work; this is because these are implicit attitudes, they are in our hearts, not our heads. Knowledge doesn’t change behaviour. When we know and care about someone, and then we find out that they have has a mental illness, but that they are not defined by it, we tend to have a better attitude to the condition.

  • Granni Trixie

    “Knowledge doesn’t change behaviour”. What the research shows is counter to my experience and I suspect others. For example, I tended to be very impatient with a relative wh had an eating disorder. Then for work I had to learn about the condition to find there was a neurological basis and this definitely got me to change my tune. Similarly when I read around conditions such as Autism and Aspergers I looked at the ‘strange’ behaviours I came across by some people with these conditions differently. So I imagine that mental unwellness ( as I think about it) is also an area where knowledge lends insights and understanding to make for more comfortable relationships and relieve isolation. I would expect that if there was more education on the subject people would be more prepared should they find themselves in depression or leading down the road to mental bad health.
    But if the research shows my experience is unusual …..who knows?

  • Mindbody Medic

    I sighed when I heard this news… ”not again”. Its difficult for the average punter to truly empathise with those in extreme distress as it is so alien from the ”normal” experience of life. As someone who has been there I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
    What is so truly terrifying for those who suffer in silence is that Sinead has a track record of this and has a high profile. If she can’t get access to top quality treatment* what hope for the person barely making ends meet?
    Thankfully there is a lot of help in Northern Ireland IF you seek it. the most powerful thing is to speak with friends/relatives or even an older confidant you aren’t necessarily close with. I had the resources to see someone privately for a few sessions before beginning a programme with a superb female clinical Psychologist in Tyrone/Ferm area. Even after all that help, you need to be incredibly vigilant especially in regard to lifestyle/social interaction.

    *I realise we don’t know specifics but you would hope her entourage would have protocol/plan in place or work closely with her psychologist at this point. We should of course extend empathy and try to point out to others that it isn’t simply attention seeking.