Reader Rosemary Welsh has congratulated me for my “courage and honesty in dealing with the subject of mental health, which so many in our society refuse to discuss.” Her letter brought me to tears; so absolute was its benevolence.
Know this, Rosemary, my goal is to get T&T to speak out. Despite the prudence of my elder LeRoy Clarke, who warned me “to be careful not to become the crazy lady writing in the newspapers” I’m unswerving about changing the perception of mental illness and really don’t care what people think/say, if I can help someone, somewhere. Recognising the intolerance, like others, my choice could’ve been concealment, especially as I now have to pretend not to see “friends” slinking away since this undertaking. Instead, I am extending my liberating experience of openness, and am pleased to be among those speaking out internationally. Mental-health issues are numerous and bewildering and include the confusion over how we arrive at defining statistics, when most people world over wouldn’t risk disclosing their position. The leading global estimate for mental illness—one in four—may be just that, an estimate.
Invariably, many have challenged the validity of the well-repeated approximation widely quoted as: “One in four people will experience some kind of mental-health problem in the course of a year,” but nothing authoritative has evolved to trump it. The World Health Organization (WHO) obscures it further for me, saying, “One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.” That figure may be just a useful device to draw attention to the alarming incidence and to encourage advocacy. But until we take individual responsibility for dealing openly with this issue, no statistic will matter. American-born, British-based writer/comedian Ruby Wax regarded as the UK’s face of mental illness, puts it in perspective, saying: “My point is, if we don’t learn to deal with this it won’t be one in four, it will be four in four who are really going to get ill in the upstairs department.” Wax, who has lived with depression since childhood, is the co-founder of blackdogtribe.com, a social networking site where people with depression can chat anonymously.
Using available estimates, the following figures, comparative in numbers, not in severity or consequence, highlight the occurrence of mental health globally:
• In 2008, 12.66 million people were diagnosed with cancer (info.cancerresearchuk.org).
• The number of people living with HIV worldwide was 34 million by the end of 2010 (WHO).
• The estimate of mental illness is 450 million people currently suffering from such conditions (WHO).
With advocacy and global education benefiting from government and institutional funding, the HIV/Aids epidemic has been stymied, the annual number of new HIV infections is on a steady decline. There are many available preventive and curative solutions for cancer, too, and the disease garners widespread support. But there was a time when people were as reticent about these two as we are now about mental illness.
It will take similar effort, of global proportions, to improve mental-health education: a collaborative international campaign facing down stigma; prejudice; and skewed values being a place to start. If T&T considers that mental disorders lead the causes of ill-health and disability worldwide and is projected to be the greatest limitation on an active, healthy workforce, we may become more anxious to assault this problem. Recently, during a debate in the UK House of Commons, MPs Charles Walker and Kevan Jones told the chamber about their struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression, respectively. Elected in 2005, Walker, calling himself a “practising fruitcake,” disclosed that he had been diagnosed with OCD for over 30 years. His Web page that states in 2011, he led a parliamentary debate calling for a new approach to mental healthcare based on compassion, understanding and respect.
A former defence minister, Jones was close to tears as he told fellow MPs he’d suffered from deep depression in the mid-1990s. He appealed for a change of culture that would make it easier for people, including MPs, to reveal their mental-health problems, without its being viewed as a sign of weakness. Asked whether his admission would affect how people viewed him or his career prospects, Jones said: “I actually don’t care now, because if it helps other people who have suffered from depression in the past, good.” Also recounting their experience with mental illnesses were MPs Sarah Wollaston and Andrea Leadsom. These confessions were made during a debate to repeal laws barring people who have had severe mental-health problems from jury service and from being MPs or company directors. I urge our Parliament, where—given the accepted estimate, at least 18 people may be mentally ill—to consider opening up. This is one honourable moment where we should imitate the First-World attitude, as we’re wont to do in lesser matters.