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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.
 
 
 
Catscatsintheattic on August 12th, 2014 02:17 pm (UTC)
Yes, yes, yes to all of this.

Why is mental illness the greater stigma? Maybe because we live in a world that values the mind over the body (while at the same time standardising physical beauty to the max). We act as if our psychological set and our physical set are two different things where our mind controls our body or the two are not even related. So many observations point in a different direction, but they get conveniently ignored.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 12th, 2014 02:21 pm (UTC)
I think it could be historical. For a long time, mental illnesses were diseases of the soul, then, more recently, the mind. It's only with the recent ascendency of hard neuroscience that they've been seen as most often diseases or disorders of the body. It's letting go of the mind/body dichotomy that we seem slow to do. Because it involves letting go of so many other ideas about ourselves, I suppose.
Catscatsintheattic on August 12th, 2014 02:27 pm (UTC)
I think it was back at the age of Enlightenment when the idea first came up that the mind controls the body.

It's high time that we let go of the mind/body dichotomy. But yes, that's scary to a lot of people, since it means giving up the assumption that we can lay waste to our bodies, or that our minds can control everything. Even the way we sit and move says something about who we are. It not one or the other. Body and mind are connected. And that's a little more complicated than most people like it.
tudorpottudorpot on August 12th, 2014 03:51 pm (UTC)
Great post, thanks for expressing so well what I have been floundering at trying to say. I've shared a link on my journal. Re hard neuroscience, my sister has panic disorder - a form of OCD, which is now being considered a genetic disorder.