Five years ago, when my daughter became ill with severe mental health problems, I knew absolutely nothing about mental illness. I didn’t really know what it was, what caused it, what to do about it and – most importantly – I didn’t know what to say or how to help!
There’s nothing in the parenting manuals that tells you what to do when your 15 year old daughter falls apart in front of your eyes, and you find yourself standing there, utterly helpless.
And so began the scariest, most bewildering and exhausting learning curve of my life. Trying to find information, support, someone who could help, and realising quickly that I was not only having to deal with my daughter’s illness, but also the silence, fear and stigma that goes along with it.
Five years on, I am far from an expert, but I have learned a lot. And one of the most important things I’ve learned is that talking about it helps – a lot, and on many levels.
My search for information put me in touch with Time to Change, and that’s when I realised just how big the problem of mental illness really is, how many people are affected and that, despite how it felt, we were not the only ones!
It also taught me that the stigma of mental illness, and the discrimination that accompanies it, is just as damaging – if not more so – than the illness itself!
So I made the decision to start talking about it – to family, friends, work colleagues and then to health professionals. And an amazing thing happened. People listened, asked questions, tried to help; and then people started opening up, telling me about their friend, niece, grandson, brother, mum or even their own mental health issues. Sharing our story seemed to give them permission to do the same, safe in the knowledge that they were talking to someone who understood.
It also challenged people’s perceptions of mental illness. People would say to me, “What Jess? But she’s always so happy!”, or she’s pretty, clever, got lots of friends, got everything going for her, doing well at school, and so on …
What our experience has taught me, and now many others, is that mental illness can affect anyone at any time, regardless of age, class, religion, sex, professional status. It does not discriminate!
What challenges people’s prejudices is meeting real people affected by mental illness and hearing their stories. And knowledge …
There are so many myths and fears attached to mental illness, perhaps perpetuated by media, but also by the silence that surrounds it. Talking about it demystifies it, makes it ok, helps people to understand. Confronted by reality and the facts, people start to let go of the stereotypes and preconceived ideas. Giving people an opportunity to ask questions and talk about what they have found out is a powerful way of changing the way people think about mental illness. It gets it out in the open and makes it ok, and therefore, the more people we get out there and talk to, the more we can change the way people think. That is what will ultimately break down the stigma of mental illness.
And from that place, it becomes easier for those with the mental health problem to talk and be open about what they are experiencing, free from the judgements and discrimination that come from other people’s ignorance and fear.
by Debbie Humberstone (May 2014)