By Emma Simkin
CN: Depression, anxiety, dissociation,
eating disorders, psychosis, bipolar
personality disorders, Trump presidency
When I was seventeen and had a diagnosis of depression, I’d talk about my struggles with mental health and would be met, for the most part, with a great degree of understanding. I had a few friends shun me after I came out about my diagnosis, and received a handful of insensitive comments (’why don’t you just try to smile and be happy?’ was a common one, as if I could just switch on happiness like you switch on a light). Yet, on the whole, the reactions were largely supportive. Almost all of my friends and family had either experienced depression themselves, or known someone who had, so would relate to my experiences with kindness and sympathy. I thought to myself, ‘You know, mental health stigma really isn’t all that bad’.
How wrong I was. A few years down the line, with a new diagnosis of bipolar disorder, my experiences have been very different. As part of the package of bipolar, sometimes I suffer from more unpalatable mental health issues, such as delusions. Tell someone you’re feeling low and struggling to get out of bed, and aside from offering kindness and support, no one really bats an eyelid. Tell the same person that you think that motorway signs are giving you hidden messages about the secrets of time, and they look at you like you’ve just grown three heads or murdered a puppy.
We need to talk about mental health issues, and that includes disorders that make people feel uncomfortable. A lot of people at Cambridge are very vocal about mental health activism, which is great. For the most part, people seem quite willing to discuss depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. But people tiptoe with fear around topics like psychosis and personality disorders.
The lack of discussion isn’t simply to do with prevalence. Psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia and some forms of bipolar, are pretty common. Statistics from SANE estimate that 3% of the population experiences psychosis in their lifetime. 3-5% of the population has a personality disorder. In contrast, only 0.9% of the population will have anorexia nervosa in their lifetime, but the awareness is far greater. I have seen so many campaigns and articles raising awareness specifically for anorexia, but very few raising awareness and support about psychosis, despite it being almost twice as prevalent. Whilst we need to continue to campaign about the more commonly talked about disorders (there’s still so much stigma surrounding depression, anxiety and eating disorders), psychotic disorders, personality disorders, and dissociative disorders, often get completely swept under the rug. They haven’t had such a boost in public understanding, and consequently, they haven’t had the boost in public sympathy. There’s a huge gap between the way people think about and react to mental illnesses like depression, and mental illnesses like psychotic disorders and personality disorders.
When more ‘acceptable’ disorders dominate discussions of mental health, other disorders are left to slip through the gaps. When this happens, people don’t get their knowledge of those mental illnesses through reliable and positive discussions, but through films that generally stigmatise mental health issues. When psychotic disorders are mentioned in the media, they are almost always linked to violence. People get confused between the terms ‘psychotic’ and ‘psychopathic’. They think of axe-wielding murderers, not teachers or nurses or university students. With the rise of the press and social media users’ attempts to diagnose Donald Trump with mental illness, people increasingly equate personality disorders with being an abhorrent bigot. We never hear from the silent majority, who aren’t violent or criminals, who silently get on with their lives without posing a threat to anyone.
There’s still so much stigma surrounding depression and anxiety, but it can’t be denied that some mental illnesses are differently, and more heavily stigmatised than others. Most the time, when someone says they’d support someone with a mental illness, they’re thinking of depression. They’re thinking about how to support someone to get out of bed and face the day, not about how to convince someone that the stranger opposite them in the cafe isn’t trying to steal their thoughts. Virtually all mental illness sufferers experience discrimination – but some, differently to others. Some occupy a privileged position of passing as more ‘acceptable’ in society. Imagine the uproar that would be created if films continually depicted sufferers of depression to be brutal mass murderers. But horror films where the main character has a psychotic disorder are commonplace.
We can’t put the onus on those with more stigmatised disorders to speak up about their experiences. When you’re suffering from a mental illness, daily existence can be a struggle. The last thing you want to do is to open yourself up to negative stigma. Instead, campaigns within Cambridge need to put a greater focus on discussing a variety of mental illnesses, including disorders like bipolar, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. If we’re going to commit to the destigmatisation of mental illness, we need to do much more than just discuss disorders that we are more comfortable talking about.