Mental health or mental illness?

It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that mental health has become a big issue this year.  It’s practically impossible to turn on the TV, open a newspaper or even walk down the street without someone banging on about it.  The message put about by, amongst others,  members of the Royal family, sports personalities and rock stars is that mental health, and the problems associated with it, are subjects we should all be far more willing to discuss.

As a long-term sufferer from recurrent, but fortunately not incapacitating, depression I should welcome this focus on mental health.  So why does it leave me feeling slightly uneasy?

Because while so much attention is being given to mental health, the subject of mental illness seems to have been sidelined.  What were once referred to as mental illnesses have been rebranded as mental health problems.  But to the sufferer, a mental illness is so much more than a problem.

Given time, resources and relevant support a problem is something that can be solved.  Perhaps describing mental illnesses as mental health problems is intended to be empowering, telling sufferers that they can take control.  But there is an inherent difficulty here.

Inability to solve a problem is seen as failure, or not trying hard enough.  The stark truth, however, is that mental illness cannot be cured, the problem cannot be solved.  It can be controlled or relieved by medication and/or therapy.  It can remit.  But there is always, at the very least, the threat that it will return.

When I am in the throes of one of my recurring depressions, I do not have a problem.  I am ill.  I cannot solve this.  Does that make me a failure?

A survey of 5,000 UK adults conducted by the National Centre for Social Research found that 1 in 4 had been diagnosed with a mental illness.  Are all these people failing to solve their mental health problem?  Apparently so, as the same survey revealed that 1 in 5 people agreed that ‘one of the main causes of mental illness is a lack of self-discipline and willpower’.

In this, the second decade of the 21st century, there is still, appallingly, a stigma attached to mental illness.  While we may have moved on from talk of “nutters” who are “not right in the head” spending time in the “loony bin”, but the Mental Health Foundation reports that nearly nine out of ten people with a mental illness say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives.  Fear of receiving a label which might have negative consequences in later life prevents many people from seeking help for their illness.

In this context, the increased publicity currently being given to mental health can only be welcomed.  But how can we tackle discrimination, shame and fear if we can’t even bring ourselves to refer to its cause by name?   Perhaps the first step in removing the stigma would be to openly and honestly go back to talking about mental illness as enthusiastically as we now talk about mental health.