A reader worries about the unique behaviours of someone living with a mental health issue.
There seems to be a lot of talk about mental health nowadays. On the one hand I am glad awareness is promoted in society. We are being encouraged to not marginalise people but rather to care and support sufferers. My concern is that some people are quick to diagnose mental health conditions, when they are not skilled to do so. They judge people and fail to accept difference. When is behaviour unique or different as compared to a mental health issue, who is best to assess this and how should the general public talk about it?
Mental illness used to be quite literally hidden away at many levels within society. In recent times the stigma and ignorance surrounding mental health has been tackled by successive governments and others in an effort to match the catchphrase that “mental health is everyone’s business”. Research has shown one in five people will experience a mental health issue each year and over the course of a generation, half of the population will have some reduction in their mental health status. Some of these experiences may be mild and transitory but many will be serious and enduring over their lifetime. The aim of raising public awareness is of course not to make everyone a mental health expert but rather to be able to recognise when it becomes desirable or even necessary to contact a mental health professional either for themselves or someone else. A simple question such as “Are you OK” may be a starting point. It is also possible for people to do a “Mental Health First Aid” course aimed at helping “lay people” to recognise that a problem may be present. However given the fact that diagnoses can be very influential in determining how both the professional and general community respond to an individual it is vitally important that this only be done by highly trained mental health clinicians.
Mental health professionals are trained to discard prejudice and relate to their patients in non-judgemental ways. Unfortunately despite ongoing efforts this has not spread to the wider community. It is a contradiction in Western society that people strive hard to be unique and display difference in their dress and appearance but also in many cases want to identify with an acceptance group. The many manifestations of groups as diverse as “emos” “goths” and the so-called “Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs” are testament to this. However when it comes to some unusual behaviours that used to be tolerated as eccentric or simply quirky this appears to no longer be the case.
Different cultures try to make sense of mental illness in different ways. Sometimes it is as a negative eg as “witchcraft” or “demon possession”. Sometimes it is venerated as “visionary” or as a message from a supernatural power. Fear of the unknown generates responses ranging from consternation to mockery and even violence. It also leads to the generation of inaccurate stereotypes such as the “mad axe murderer” or the “psychopathic boss”. Becoming more informed and knowledgeable is an important part of combating these misperceptions.
The panel doesn’t feel it can dictate how people should talk about mental illness but it does agree that such conversations need to occur and need to be ongoing in our society. Your interest has helped this process to occur.
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