When I was in school, there were the scandals and the taboos. Sex and drugs fell under the scandal category, there to be gossiped about in class, to be written about on lockers. The subjects of the gossip never wanted it to be there, but it was, everywhere, in secret pockets of conversation, on corners of the desk.
And then there were the taboos. The family stuff. The mental illnesses. Depression and anxiety stayed inside the walls of a PSHE classroom. Cuts stayed under sleeves. These taboos don’t belong to gossip, but the problem is, they didn’t belong to silence either.
There is a dichotomy within the treatment of mental illness - we are told that the only way to dismantle the stigma is to talk about it (see campaigns such as Time to Change), but simultaneously, according to social etiquette, the topic shouldn't grace prosaic conversation either. Nothing ruins a party like depression.
This is a topic that needs addressing. Among teenagers, rates of depression and anxiety have increased by 70% in the past 25 years. 300,000 young people in Britain have an anxiety disorder. 1 in 4 people have experienced a mental disorder. This problem is common, but we know this, we’ve heard the statistics before, gradually we even become desensitised to them. We’ve done the workshops, the educational quizzes, we know what we should do, right? Wrong.
Education on the issue is crucial, I’m not refuting that, but the reality of mental disorders are difficult. When your normally extrovert friend is withdrawing, repeating the same issue over and over, you start having to remind yourself to be patient and then one day, you’ll find yourself, talking to someone about it, probably saying something like ‘I just wish they would help themselves’. There you have it. Facts and numbers don’t always breed understanding.
Mental disorders are frustrating - they are tiring, cyclical, demoralising, for everyone, but, in those kind of comments, so many issues are revealed. The battle for enduring sympathy is not fought with statistics. People cannot ‘snap out of it’, and another thing, importantly so, the derogatory label of ‘attention seeking’ is not interchangeable with the phrase, ‘cry for help’.
This language, even casually used, allows for a manifestation of dangerous accusations and the encouragement of impatience. It’s been enabled by the the modern day trend to, sadly, romanticise mental illness, glorifying it as a tragic sort of beauty. People are prone to diagnosing themselves, throwing the words ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ around. If you sneezed, you wouldn’t instantly jump under a quilt with a Lemsip and some soup and give yourself the day off, so why do people insist on equating a bad day with a diagnosable mental illness?
However, this is a dangerous viewpoint, yes, some people misuse terms and enjoy a tad of melodrama, but this gives strength to the idea that it is okay to interrogate someone over their right to be struggling. When you start trying to make people justify their sadness, or validate their issues, you are asking them to understand something they may not be capable of doing so. It is good to give someone belief in their agency, it is true that a lot of the time, the best person to help you is yourself, but this does not mean that the person is being lazy, simply indulging in pity, waiting for the right time to suit them to be better again.
In one breath we plead for people to talk to us, tell us all, explain what you’re feeling, but in another breath, we tell people there is a limit - only so much you can hear someone talk about feeling sad. Societally, the issue with mental illnesses is that we may hear the facts, say the facts even, but a lot of the time we don’t believe them. This is the reason that the topic of mental disorders occupies such a weird space. When cowering in the shadows, it becomes stigmatised and no one is helped, but when in the spot light, people are accused of attention seeking and mental disorders are trivialised. As a society, we falsely possess the belief that we are equipped to deal with mental disorder, armed with data alone, meaning that when met with the reality, impatience quickly sets in. We have a long way to go before we truly have a handle on the situation; the first thing to do is to eliminate the delusion that we do.