Today is World Mental Health Day. I turned on the breakfast news this morning to find that the UK government has appointed a minister for suicide prevention, charged with tackling the stigma around mental health. The interview with the UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, went on to clarify that this was part of their wider programme to tackle issues around social attitudes to and provision of support for those with mental health issues. Yet, he then also went on to say that the new minister would first have to secure the funding she needs to undertake her brief.
Confused? So am I! Either we need the minister because there is a need for this issue to be addressed ergo there is a need for funding or it’s simply a tokenistic gesture, she’ll quietly disappear back to whatever job she came from, and the politicians will stop talking about tackling the stigma of mental health until it serves some purpose for them again.
Meanwhile, thousands of people up and down the country deal with mental health issues. Thousands more of family members, friends, colleagues and health professionals work to support them. And that stigma still persists.
One aspect of the Blue Devilism project for which I was completely unprepared is how people would react me within that context of society’s shifting attitudes to mental health issues. Yes, it was a goal of the team that we add something to the conversation, to highlight that conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder don’t make a person any less likely to be successful or significant, but, perhaps naively, I had thought this would be through publications or involvement with support groups.
What I hadn’t anticipated is just how often I would go out to talk about my work and, afterwards, be approached by people who would share that they or a loved one had been affected by a diagnosis of a mental illness. Sometimes they want to tell me how they recognise their experience in Burns’s symptoms and behaviours, sometimes they want to tell me how they’re going to go back to his poetry and read it in a new light. Often, they just want to say thank you for talking about his mental health at all, that it’s something they’ve often wondered but that it’s an area that’s never been studied.
I’ve written a lot about Burns’s relationship with Frances Dunlop, how their correspondence becomes a safe space for him to discuss his difficulties without fear of judgement or criticism. I think this is what is happening to me now. Just by talking openly about someone’s mental health, people view me as a ‘safe’ person they can talk to. For me, at the moment, that’s a huge privelege and an honour, and I am grateful to those who have trusted me enough to share. But they shouldn’t have to measure who is and isn’t safe to confide in.
It really signals to me that simply speaking to one another and speaking about mental health is the single most powerful tool we have to counter the ongoing stigma. And it doesn’t cost a penny or need a special minister.
Every day should be World Mental Health Day.