Monday, 8 February 2010

Mental Illness - The Unspoken Barrier

Most people in our society still don't understand mental illness. Too often it is seen as a weakness - something that is 'put on' by those who somehow don't want to face reality and 'pull themselves together' - as opposed to a medical condition which can blight lives and which deserves understanding and compassion.

I'm fortunate not to have visited the very outer reaches of such conditions myself - but when I was younger, I suffered deeply from social anxiety and clinical depression. It made life extraordinarily difficult for almost two years, and there are few weeks when I don't thank my lucky stars that I am now in a better and more stable mental place than I was.

Perhaps the worst thing about it all was the feeling of helplessness that not being in control of one's own mood, outlook and social reactions engenders - and the knowledge that many people simply don't understand how a chronic mental condition can affect every aspect of one's being. Someone with depression is not being 'lazy' or malingering - they are sapped of their energy, their drive, and their passions. It's not a good place to be, and when combined with anxiety attacks, it's even worse. Millions of people suffer, in one way or another, from such illnesses - often in silence.

It doesn't have to be this way - and it shouldn't be. That is one of the reasons that I am supporting ReThink's campaign to overturn the blanket ban on anyone receiving treatment for a mental illness being able to serve on a jury in the UK. Rather than being based on the capacity to make sound judgements, the ban applies to anyone receiving treatment - even if their condition is being effectively self managed, or simply monitored by their GP to ensure against a relapse. This is just one example (there are many others, including election to Parliament, in fact) of the stigma that is still attached to mental illness.

Mental illness doesn't have to destroy lives - it can be managed, survived, and worked through. Winston Churchill's 'Black Dog' depressions didn't stop his career, and neither did Abraham Lincoln's frequent bouts of intense melancholy. Marcus Trescothick has bravely spoken out about his own anxiety disorder, and has found happiness back at Somerset, having defied the expectations being laid on his shoulders by others. In contrast, the recent suicide of Robert Enke shows just what can happen when mental illness is viewed as weakness, and when those suffering feel that they can't speak out.

Politicians hardly ever talk about this issue.

They should.

I will.

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