Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Understanding terms

One of the most alarming things I've heard in my journey through the Mental Health Care system is that it is both 'normal' and 'healthy' not to want to associate with people with mental health problems. Certainly I can quite see how it can seem odd for people to choose to mix with the ill of any description, but such comments do not help overcome the stigma of those of us who are or have been mentally ill.

I found this question posted on Stephen Fry's site: 'Would you employ someone with a mental illness?' Here's another "Would you knowingly choose to marry a person with a mental illness?

Before I give my own answers I'll explain why I think such questions ought to be asked.

They both challenge the person to think of what the term 'mental illness' actually means. Most people will immediately think of dramatic and severe symptoms when asked to define mental illness. 'Behaving oddly' isn't usually sufficient to encapsulate what people's thoughts and feelings are over what such a term means to them.

This 'public' perception of severe cases is common because of sheer ignorance and has been largely promoted by the media albeit unintentionally. On the news we don't hear of success stories of sufferers who, despite their illness, reach heights of astonishing achievements; there isn't a equivalent of the Para Olympics for the mentally ill. What we hear of are the murders.

FACT: Only 3% of all murders in the UK are committed by the mentally ill. That leaves 97% of murders being committed by the 'sane'.

There's an obvious argument here to define all criminals as insane or mentally unwell, after all the one thing they all have in common is that they have been guilty of 'anti-social behaviour' of some kind. I'm personally against such a move as that would only serve to further increase the prejudice against the vast majority of the mentally ill who are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. It strikes me right away though that terminology and classification needs revision.

The Arts too have played their part to unwittingly add to the prejudice and fear of the uneducated. Ironic as the intent has generally been to highlight the plight of the mentally ill and educate people. As I mentioned in a previous posting, until the film 'A Beautiful Mind' came out there was no true life story of a person living day to day with an illness, learning to manage their condition and being a success that I'm aware of. However, it's only one film and it isn't up to date with regard to treatments that are available in the here and now in the 21st century and the enormous strides mental health care has made.

How many films about mental illness show patients receiving ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy), lobotomies or insulin injections can you name? Yet all these treatments have been on the decrease since the 1950s. In this country you'd have to beg for a lobotomy and even then you're unlikely to get one. ECT is done with the consent of the patient more often than not and I've not personally heard of anyone other than a diabetic receiving insulin injections. Yet it remains embedded in the public psyche that such treatments are still standard practice and commonplace.

It's also in their perception that success for the mentally ill is something that only artistic people ever achieve and that they can never be well or even manage their condition. I've even heard one person comment that only the deeply disturbed can produce great literature, art, sculpture and music. Films and documentaries about artists such as Vincent Van Gogh or Tchaikovsky demonstrate extreme states and neither have a happy ending for the individual.  I'm frankly not surprised that people throughout the ages have turned to art in order to express themselves in such an unforgiving and judgemental world when it some to mental illness.

Mostly the majority of people who suffer from a mental illness do so once and get better. The majority of sufferers display none of the obvious symptoms that most people associate with madness and out of those who do suffer from those conditions the majority can and do learn to manage and control them themselves with mental health care. Finally, and I'm not sorry to disappoint the sensationalists, the majority of treatments available and most commonly used do not involve those already mentioned and it is standard practice in this country these days to agree a course of treatment with the patient whenever and wherever possible.

I wish people would, of their own volition cease to be ignorant and get informed; ceased to assume and just asked.

I promised my answers and here they are. I would (and have) employed people who have been mentally ill based on their ability to do the job required. I also had to refuse work to someone who was mentally ill because they were too ill and they needed to regain control of their illness. I did however leave the door open for them to return at a later date.

With regard to marrying someone who is mentally ill, I initially found the question harder to answer because I found I didn't want to be a full-time carer. I didn't want a repeat of living with someone as severely ill as my mother was. My perception was based on that but also coloured by the broader mindset that I have grown up  with - that of prejudice against and fear of madness. However, I then realized that by feeling that I then had no right to expect anyone to take me on board to marry me as I too have been mentally ill. 'But I'm not that difficult to get on with' I thought, 'I'm at less risk when I have someone to share my life with.' Yet I knew too that many people would find my lows a burden.

My answer is, if they are right for you and you are right for them then marry because (as I keep saying) the illness is not the person.

A Final Question
Is it abnormal and unhealthy to want to associate with someone who has some other form or illness or impediment? What if they are paraplegic, blind, deaf, have a stomach ulcer, cancer, a heart condition or simply have the flu? If the answer is 'no' it's not abnormal or unhealthy in these scenarios to mix with the ill then surely it is high time it isn't when it comes to mental illness. 

1 comment:

  1. PS: it's occurred to me that the mentally ill are braver than those who have never suffered the effects of such illness because they have no choice but to confront their fears in efforts to recover.

    Whereas those who do not educate themselves about mental illness are not only avoiding tackling their fears on the subject but are also doing nothing to prevent themselves becoming ill. It strikes me as quite a strange behaviour when one considers the measures people take to become fit, have a healthy diet, yet they neglect the one organ in the body that controls all.


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