Every now and then, the Robot Hugs graphic about treating physical illness like mental illness pops up on one of my social media feeds.
I was reminded of it again this morning when I switched on the TV to find the top story has been the publication of the report from the NHS England Mental Health task force.
The central argument of the task force (chaired by Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind) is that “we must provide equal status to mental and physical health”.
That’s what made me think about the cartoon strip. The ridiculousness of telling someone with cancer or diabetes or a broken leg to pull themselves together or get themselves back to work or that it’s all in their head. Yet, these are things that people with mental illness hear every day.
In talking about the work of the project recently, I was asked if we were running the risk of medicalising Burns’s behaviour by exploring it from the perspective of modern psychiatry. Yet, no-one asked why modern medical knowledge and understanding had been used to develop a better understanding of the cause of Burns’s premature death.
It’s an example of exactly the same thing. The stigmatisation of mental health as something that is not medical, not serious and not to be talked about. Not in the same way as cancer or diabetes or a broken leg.
However, someone with mental illness does have a medical condition. Something is not functioning within medically-accepted normal parameters. The condition will almost certainly be life-altering in some way; it will become life-threatening for too many.
Not talking about mental health hides it from view, makes it a something to be feared and shameful. Not talking only makes these problems worse.
The task force report acknowledges “public attitudes to mental health are improving” but it also shows there is a long way to go in providing “parity of esteem” for mental health – having it viewed and treated as seriously as physical illness. The importance of this is only emphasised by the fact that 1 in 4 people will be affected by mental illness in their life; take into account the wider impact involving families and friends, and that’s pretty much all of us.
I’m not making any grand claims about the project solving the problem of stigmatisation. But I do hope to add to the dialogue that is reducing the stigma by developing public understanding of mental illness and its effects. Talking about mental illness and talking to those with mental illness banishes the fear and misunderstanding that surrounds these conditions.
And sometimes it helps. All it takes is three little words…”How are you?”