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Mental and Physical Illnesses Are Equal

  October 12, 2016   

A guest blog from Kimberley John, BA Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield

According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 4 people worldwide will suffer from mental illness in their lifetimes. Yet a large number of people with mental health problems are left undiagnosed, untreated, and undermined.

“Pull yourself together,” a well-meaning, though somewhat ignorant colleague may say.

“Cheer up,” says your mother. “A lot of people are worse off than you.”

And yes, that may be true; but how bad disabilities and illnesses may seem is entirely relative.

Image credit: Haejin Park

Case of Perspective

You may be suffering with depression and believe you’re going through something a lot worse than a friend who has been in a wheelchair since childhood. Your perspective shifts: you begin to look inward, and your perception of your illness is magnified.

Therefore, although difficult, it is key to remember that your suffering is no bigger than that of someone dealing with multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, down’s syndrome, or even cancer.

Still, you wouldn’t hear someone with epilepsy being told to pull themselves together. You wouldn’t tell someone with paraplegia to get over themselves.

So why do mental health sufferers have to deal with this?

From Personal Experience

I know how debilitating depression and anxiety can be and how much your mind can disable you from going about your daily life with ease. The smallest of things become difficult: getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, eating.

Sure, you may not experience any physical pain but the mental pain is tremendous and in my opinion equal to that of someone with a physical impairment, and seeking help, getting better, is made harder and all the more daunting by the stigma that surrounds you.

Being told you’re overreacting, feeling sorry for yourself, attention-seeking, or that the mental health problem you are going through simply doesn’t exist scares people away from seeing health professionals and finding ways to overcome their problems. This stigma is dangerous as it can negatively impact on someone’s health in the long run, as they are forced to suppress their anxieties and put on a mask – pretending everything is fine.

Thankfully, there are hundreds of campaigns around the world dedicated to tackling this stigma.

A few that helped me overcome my depression and anxiety by inspiring me to talk and write about my problems include:

  • 12 Kinds of Kindness and its offshoot campaign Let’s Talk About Mental Health, run by designers Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman
  • It Affects Me: a social media campaign using the hashtag #itaffectsme to highlight the scale of mental health problems and get people talking to end the stigma
  • Sick Not Weak: an online campaign committed to “rewriting the definition of mental illness in the public eye, and saving lives through a safety net of stories that will remind us we are never alone”
  • Time to Change: an anti-stigma campaign run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, whose research has shown that “up to 90% people with mental health problems experience some form of stigma”

Mental health problems are often invisible, seen as taboo, or simply not understood enough by wider society to facilitate change and improve the help and support networks available.

One In Four

If 1 in 4 of us are sufferers, that means someone close to you has a mental health problem; and because of the stigma you may not even know about it. It could even be you who is suffering.

With that high a statistic it is impossible to argue that mental illness doesn’t exist; or that someone is making a big deal for no reason, just because you can’t see the symptoms. That statistic clearly shows that mental health problems are just as important and just as valid as physical disabilities and diseases.

Let that knowledge encourage you to speak up and speak out.

Your words and experiences can help others overcome their own mental health problems and seek support, be that from medical professionals or even family and friends.

Mental illness is something that affects us all, so don’t keep quiet about it. You can help end the stigma.