Let's Change Attitudes to Mental Illness; Much Work Is Being Done to Reduce the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health, However When It Comes to Talking about Health, There Is Still the Assumption That People Are Referring to Their Physical Wellbeing. Here, Dr Rose Thompson and Dr Liz Forty, of Cardiff University, Outline How We Can Break Down the Barriers That Surround Mental Health Issues
Byline: Dr Rose Thompson and Dr Liz Forty
WHEN we talk about health there is often an unspoken assumption that it is physical health we mean.
As a society we have become accustomed to talking about blood pressures, BMIs and bowels, and even if we don't all manage to eat the recommended five a day, we are aware of the kinds of things we can do to maintain good physical health. But there is another side to health that we seem less comfortable talking about, we all seem to go a bit quiet when someone raises the subject of mental health.
In the past many mental illnesses have proved difficult to treat, and confusion about what does and doesn't contribute to them has made these conditions both mysterious and frightening. Throughout history people with mental illness have been locked away, laughed at, bullied and abused. Even the language used to describe some of these conditions becomes appropriated as slang for behaviour that we do not admire, and people frequently reach for phrases such as 'he's a psycho', or 'she's not quite right in the head, if you know what I mean', when they want to cast doubt on a person's credibility.
The cinema portrayal of the rare mad man on an indiscriminate rampage of violence has falsely labelled a whole group of people, who are more likely to be a victim of crime than a criminal, as dangerous. This unhappy legacy means that people are wary about talking about problems they may have experienced, and reluctant to seek the advice of their doctors until their situation may feel quite serious. But mental health problems are neither rare nor mysterious, and we should be talking about them. One in four people will be affected by a mental health problem. Think about what this means. When you are at work, or talking to another parent dropping their children off at the school gates, or having a quiet drink with a group of friends, you are probably meeting people, perfectly normal people, who at some time in their lives have experienced problems with their mental health.
There is no doubt that treatment of people with mental illness has not always been kind. Thankfully things are beginning to change. For other illnesses that have previously been seen as taboo, such as cancer or AIDS, advances in modern medicine have meant that these conditions, that people used to fear talking about, are now not only treatable, but in some cases curable. Thirty years ago people did not like even to use the word cancer, now many people feel comfortable enough to talk frankly and openly about this condition. The same process is occurring for mental health. Campaigns such as the Time to Change Wales Campaign, the first national campaign to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental health problems in Wales, (www.timetochangewales.org.uk), and the work of organisations such as Mind Cymru (www.mind.org.uk) have made great leaps in demystifying mental illness.
Research continues to help us understand more and more about the nature of mental illness and we continue to have new ideas about how to improve the lives of people with mental illness. For some time now it has been understood that mental health disorders are very complicated. Rather than there being a single cause for any of these disorders it looks much more likely that a complicated blend of biological and social factors contribute to these disorders, with a combination of different factors being relevant to these conditions developing in different people.
How does mental health relate to physical health? We know that a healthy lifestyle which encompasses plenty of healthy food, sleep, exercise and social support can help us maintain good physical health, while an unhealthy stressful life style, with poor diet, smoking, excessive alcohol or other substance use can be harmful to our physical health.
It is not surprising that engaging in a healthy lifestyle, and avoiding behaviours associated with an unhealthy lifestyle, are also essential in maintaining good mental health. …