We all know about the benefits of healthy living. From an early age, we are taught about the importance of exercise, a balanced diet and good hygiene. We know that if we look after our bodies, we reduce the risk of illness and we feel better in ourselves. People are not threatened by the word “health” and most people are willing to talk about it. However, place the word “mental” in front of it, and people are suddenly much less willing to open up and share their experiences.
Perhaps the word “mental” has negative connotations. It conjures images of a hockey mask-wearing psychopath wielding a machete as he stalks down the dark and gloomy corridors of the abandoned asylum. As a child, I recall myself and my contemporaries using it as an adjective to describe something that was unreasonable, out-of-control or just plain crazy. Nobody wants to be seen as “mental” and this stigma is perhaps what is making it so difficult to engage in sensible, open discussion about “mental health”.
The reality is, mental health affects every single one of us. The word “mental” simply refers to aspects or functions of the mind. Very few people would claim that they don’t have a mind, so why should we feel unable to discuss it? This is one of the reasons I started writing “Mind Matters”, to raise awareness of mental health issues and to encourage open, frank discussion on the topic.
One in four people will be affected by mental health problems at some point in their lives. That’s 25% of the population. One in twelve children and young people in Scotland are affected by mental health difficulties that have a negative impact on their relationships, education and general well-being on a day-to-day basis. Depression and anxiety are now the number one cause of long-term absence from work and mental health issues are estimated to cost Britain £70 billion each year. With so many of us affected and with such a cost to the economy, you would have thought that we would at least be able to talk openly about it.
In recent years, successive governments have become aware of the growing need to address the country’s mental health difficulties. Money is often pledged to tackle the problems of underfunding and targets are frequently set to reduce waiting times for patients to access counselling services. This is all beneficial (when the politicians deliver on their promises) but unless people become more willing to discuss their individual experiences of mental health issues, the stigma will remain.
We are quite happy to share our efforts to be physically healthy. Nobody thinks twice when talking about their exercise regime at the gym or the latest diet they are trying out. Indeed, some people talk about little else! I often find myself wondering how empowering it would be for people to be similarly open about their efforts to sustain good mental health. To share hints and tips for relaxation strategies or mindfulness practices as we do with healthy recipes. To talk about the hard work we have been putting in with our counsellor or therapist the same way we brag about our exertions with a personal trainer at the gym. To listen without judgement to family members, friends and colleagues when they have the courage to share their stories of anxiety or depression. When we are able to hear the words “mental health” without panicking or assuming that the person we are talking to is “mental”, then we will have taken a big step forward.
Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
01851 871094 / 07815662208