I didn’t sleep much last night. I’d agreed to go on the Today programme at 07.40 to give my perspective on this week’s coverage of the terrible plane crash in the Alps, particularly the implications that it was caused by someone with depression.
I only came out about my own experiences of depression a year and a half ago, even though it has come – and gone – since I was 15. I’m not unusual; 75% of mental illnesses start before the age of 18. I’m also not unusual to be shy about sharing. There is still massive stigma. Including self-stigma, in which I am an expert.
Very gradually, things have become easier for the 1:4 people who experience mental illness, through campaigns such as Time to Change. Or so we thought.
I’m not going to repeat how disgracefully the majority of the print and even broadcast media have behaved this week. Others including Matt Haig, my 17 year old Twitter friend Stella and Stephanie Boland have done so much better than me.
And deepest thanks to Paul Farmer, CE of Mind, Sue Baker, Director of Time to Change and Professor Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists for being so quick off the mark and setting the record straight. They have done a stunning job.
What I want to say is that, every time I have an opportunity to speak about the stigma that still affects people like me, I feel a little more nervous. It is an increasingly heavy burden of responsibility. For some, the impact of their mental illness means they lack the voice and opportunity to speak for themselves. They have to rely on others. And that means those of us who can must act with great sensitivity and respect. Including towards those who have lost someone to suicide, anorexia or lack of self-care.
Mental illnesses, by definition, mess with your head. They make you believe horrible, negative things about yourself, question your worth and the very point of your existence, and cause you to feel hopeless about the future. In some cases, people lose touch with reality. They hurt themselves, either deliberately or by failing to take due care. It is rare that they hurt other people. Far more rare than people who are NOT mentally ill hurting others.
There are other illnesses that carry stigma, but mental illnesses are in a class of their own. The media coverage this week may have set matters back.
But what gives me hope is that after speaking on the radio, I have heard from hundreds of people I didn’t previously know via social media. Many are like me, timidly but courageously speaking up about their own experiences in order to encourage people who are ashamed of their mental illness to seek help.
Together, we can metaphorically hold hands, step forward together and show that we aren’t murderous monsters. And that, with love, support and most of all our own courage, we can make a creative and compassionate contribution to the world.
Thank you to all my old and new friends. I think we are pretty amazing.