Opinion: Liberal Democrats must let our values define our approach to mental health #timetotalk

Time to talk day“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” Kevin Spacey tells us, and it’s a bit like that with depression too. It’s so insidious precisely because it tries to convince you it isn’t really there, that these black thoughts and difficult days are all there is for you, and that this entirely your own fault.

This is why feeling about to talk about it at all, to be open, has such power: it lessens the isolation, fights your negative thoughts about yourself with positive ones from people who love you, and helps all of us live in a better, healthier society, because Mentally Interesting people have a hell of a lot to contribute. And while fighting stigma isn’t the only problem we face, it can be as hard as dealing with the mental illness itself.

So what can we as Lib Dems do?

Well, think about it in terms of freedom.

Freedom From Poverty

A lot of people struggling with mental illness also struggle to get support if they can’t work.

We’ve heard so many stories about people with obvious physical impairments who are denied benefits, which makes it even more intimidating to go to that Atos assessment looking like an able-bodied person. Having to talk about my worst days, my self-injuring behaviour, my inability to cope with things everyone else does all the time — like leaving the house, eating proper meals, and engaging with people — knowing how likely it is that I would still be told there’s nothing wrong with me, was one of the most harmful and dispiriting experiences of my life. People in perfect mental health struggle with these assessments, and the resulting rejection and stress about money can create periods of very poor mental health even if they weren’t there already.

For this reason, it’s vital that we look at changing the Work Capability Assessments. We need to be able to assure people whose mental health is so bad they cannot work that they will not become destitute because of it.

Freedom From Ignorance

There’s a lot of ignorance about mental illness. There is evidence that people who disclose mental illness are more likely to be thought stupid, lazy, unemployable, and other unfair things. Yet so many people will experience a mental health problem that we interact with them, and our lives are affected by them, all the time — be they family, friends, co-workers, bus drivers, nurses, MPs, singers, actors, you name it.

There are plenty of people willing to talk about the reality of life with mental health issues. There are studies and reports. Educate yourself, correct others who make “jokes” or get the facts wrong.

Freedom From Conformity

This is possibly my favourite of the three, and one of the things that I think makes Lib Dems stand out. Championing freedom from conformity means not expecting everyone’s life to follow the same path and thinking there is worth in a diversity of life experiences. Conformity breeds stigma for anyone who deviates from the expectation, and when it comes to mental illness, stigma is one of our worst enemies.

What can we do here? Support — both personally and in Lib Dem policies — people whose lives don’t go good-school-good-job-marriage-mortgage-kids. Many of us have chosen such paths, and very rewarding they can be, but sometimes we’ve had them chosen for us by the nature of our illness, like when I had to drop out of university because of my depression. Things like restarting higher/further education or explaining gaps in your CV can be really difficult, but we can make them easier.

We have to be ambitious about tackling mental health stigma, but some of the most effective things we can do don’t require a lot of time or money. My favourite part of today’s “Time to Talk” campaign is not the events being organised or the celebrities endorsing it or  the tweets, it’s that they say “Sometimes it’s the little things we do that make a big difference – like having a chat over a cuppa, sending a text or inviting someone out.” Precisely those kinds of things work best for me, and are what I try to offer my friends. It’s good for my fellow Mentally Interesting types, but of course it’s good for everybody else, too. Someone knowing that you like their company, you care about them, and you’re happy to listen might well be what helps them feel able to talk.

* Holly is an immigrant, bisexual, disabled, and probably can tick most other diversity boxes that you have handy.

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5 Comments

  • Harold A. Maio 6th Feb '14 - 4:08pm

    fighting stigma

    Frankly, I am tired of journalism saying someone’s prejudice is my “stigma.”

    There’s a lot of ignorance about mental illness.

    There is. Education is either failing mental health professionals, or they are failing us. Place responsibility for our ignorance where it belongs.

  • <3

  • Talking to someone I know the other day I discovered that she was suffering from depression. I knew she was ill, I’d even seen her lying on her couch, barely able to speak but I’d assumed she just had a cold. I’ve been there myself and I know exactly what it’s like and I still didn’t twig until she told me.

    Unfortunately with depression one of the first things that seems to vanish is a sense of proportion, and along with that goes a sense of humour. Without those you have no yardstick for measuring just how bad things are getting, or realising that you need to act before you become overwhelmed. That’s one way in which colleagues, friends and family can help because they can spot the warning signs early on – if they know what to look for; so a definite smacked wrist for me on that score!

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 6th Feb '14 - 11:26pm

    Good stuff, Holly. I love the way that you relate this to our core values. And I feel all the rage where ATOS is concerned.

  • Holly Matthies 6th Feb '14 - 11:45pm

    That’s a very good point you make, Alan, and I’m grateful I have had many partners and friends who have been able to keep an eye on me and look out for those early-warning signs that I might well miss. It’s another huge benefit to talking about mental health issues.

    And thank you so much Caron for encouraging me to contribute and saying such nice things about what I wrote! I really wanted to relate my ramblings to a call to action, so people weren’t just left with my words but with tangible things they can think about actually doing. And I thought, what better way to capture the attention of Lib Dems than invoke these three freedoms? 🙂

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