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12 August 2014 @ 11:23 pm
We're talking about mental illness all wrong  
This post discusses mental illness and the death of Robin Williams.

Like many people, I've spent the last 12 and a bit hours feeling a loss. Brilliantly talented people are rare, and their work lifts us as a culture. Sometimes it lifts us as human beings. Sometimes, as with all the laughter Robin Williams provoked, it just lifts our days.

So when the news of his death came across this morning, we stopped getting ready for work here and felt what we would both now miss, and then felt even sadder as we remembered his children and his wife.

And then the newsreader said 'It's believed Williams committed suicide. He had struggled with depression and alcoholism.'

And he didn't have a voice of judgement, and he sounded sad, too, and he was about a million times better than those dickheads over at Fox News, but at the same time, I thought, 'But that's not how you would have said it if he had cancer.'

Because the thing I've realised is that we have a different public language for mental illness and for 'real illness'.

In the main evening news, the presenter had different language. She said, 'Robin Williams has passed away after a long battle with depression.' And I thought, yes, that's it, because mental illness is like cancer.

It's exactly like it. Some cancers and some mental illnesses are discrete – they take up a certain space, are treated and then are gone. They are something you had, but that are now over and done with. After them, you treat yourself a little more kindly: eat more organic food, go for a run or a walk every day, work a little less, live a little more.

Others are ones people live with. You need treatment, and you need to keep watch, to make sure it's behaving, that it's keeping to the limits you can live with and letting you lead your life around it. You still have so much life around it, you just need to be vigilant, and to jump on top of things quickly if it ever looks as though it might be getting the upper hand. You can live a life like that, you can live a great and long life like that.

Then there are the ones that go to war with you. The treatment will be liike a battle, but you can face it down, you can win. And maybe you do win. Or maybe you win once, twice, a dozen times, but lose in the end, because it came back stronger, or because you were worn out. But you fight for as long as you need to, because that's what we do, and if you run out of strength before you run out of disease, the people who loved you will understand.

And then there are the diseases that devastate, that destroy swiftly and wholly and leave you astonished as to how your body could have turned on you like this and that leave your friends and family floundering, lost, because you were just here, and now you're gone.

And when any of these ARE cancer, we have this whole public language that we trot out. He fought bravely. She struggled for many years. He succumbed at last. She was suddenly struck down.

But when it's mental illness of any sort, he is said to have taken his own life. Police on the scene say there were no suspicious circumstances to her death. He committed suicide. She was found alone with empty pill bottles, viewers who are distressed by this information should call …

As a professional journalist, you receive training. For a long time they told us, 'Never say suicide. It encourages others to copycat.' But at the same time, we were told, 'And when a famous person has or dies from cancer, the one good thing is that you can encourage a massive spike in screening and treatment by providing health information with the story.' In a moment of deep common sense, a few years back some of the major mental health groups went out and spread the message – 'We have screening, too!  We have symptoms people should look out for, we have helplines they can call, we have systems that can save.'

And those messages do save: we know for a fact that people call the helplines listed at the end of news stories, and they get help, and many nip their illness early, before it can grow strong.

But I am left wondering: why do we have the different languages? Why do we have one way of talking about all the things that go wrong with the body outside the brain, and another for most of the things that happen inside it?

I had a friend who thought she was going mad. She found out she had a brain tumour. She was relieved. What kind of world is this that brain cancer was preferable? It's a question she asked later, cognizant of the fact that her diagnosis had come with words like 'operable', 'curable' and 'early', but in honesty, she said that she understood cancer, she knew what the support networks were, she knew her friends would stand by her with cancer.

I think we need to start thinking of mental illness as just illness. It's like cancer, it's like heart disease, it's like the flu. It's like so many other things that we are less scared of, and that make us less frightening to other people. I think we need to do this so that we remember that it IS an illness, and that people suffering from whatever form of it need funded and accessible help, and ongoing care, and support, and that if they die of it, they die of the disease – not by choice, or despair, or 'cowardice' (you're so predictably awful, Fox News), but simply because they were sick.

Because if we remember that it is illness, people are faster to seek help. And doctors are more straightforward in what they look for and what they can offer as treatment. And all of the employment entitlements that come with being sick will be there, and there will be less fear.

And there will be less to be frightened of.
la_marianela_mariane on August 12th, 2014 01:56 pm (UTC)
Many people think that depression is not a real illness, it's just someone being weak and pampering themselves. Whenever there is discussion of mental illness, I try to be as open as possible (I had depression twice, and I know what to look out for in my case) but there is still lots of judgement. I'd certainly never tell my boss outright.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 12th, 2014 02:10 pm (UTC)
As a manager, this makes me furious about corporate culture. In most Western countries we have legal obligations to our staff and yet we have created a culture so filled with illogical prejudices that we create problems and sometimes illness for our staff. And, of course, not just with the depressed, but with the anxious, the sick, the pregnant …

It's so wrong. The one good thing I have seen in the last 10 years is that a number of brave people have taken these issues to court and so HR departments are more aware of the needs of staff members and companies' obligations to them. Fear of being sued is a good motivator in this case!
la_marianela_mariane on August 12th, 2014 02:21 pm (UTC)
Let me bask in your indignation for a moment.

And I would not be fired, because I'm a teacher, and I have civil servant status, so they need to prove I've done something wrong before they can fire me. But the thing I fear is more insidious : whispers, good work being overlooked, lost oppotunity for advancement, being stuck with the shitty jobs ... Also, the language of the higher-ups is clear : whatever illness you have, it's your fault when it's depression. Big corporations have done a lot of efforts with that (especially after lots of people commited suicide at work a few years ago) and they have formed their executives to look out for anxiety. But the governement is not ready to implement in its own departments what it has forced companies to do. Hypocirsy of the highest order.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 12th, 2014 02:41 pm (UTC)
You can bask if I'm allowed to share in your righteous anger :-)

It's just such a narrow way of thinking. If nothing else, use people to their strengths! I had a great Aspie sub who I could give all the proofreading to: she spotted everything. Yes, someone with depression might need the odd week off. So do parents now and then. They're also the people who have great loyalty to companies that give them those weeks off, and who focus on connections that flightier people like me miss.

I think that I get cross about it because I was hit in the head with a two-tonne taxi. I have an acquired brain injury as a result. It's nothing horrid: my handwriting gets a bit muddled when I'm tired, my speech a little aphasic. I spent six months without most of my nouns and I still don't recall most of 1994. Over the course of two years, I worked really hard to reconnect a lot of what the taxi knocked loose. Some came back differently, some better, some (notably my French and Italian) worse.

Because I had been hit in the head, I had a straightforward healing narrative. Yet there is not a lot of difference between my broken brain and other broken brains. Brains change. We can change them. And people are astonishing, it really shits me when we waste perfectly good human potential!