Friday, 2 December 2011

Gary Speed’s death shows we urgently need to tackle the ignorance surrounding mental illness

When I started reading mysterious tweets on Sunday saying “Gary Speed RIP”, I did not know who they were referring to. But the volume of these tweets made me curious to know who Gary Speed was and why his death had caused such a stir. I discovered he was a 42-year-old husband, father and football manager and that he had committed suicide on Sunday.

That somebody felt so desperate and in such mental pain that they could not bear to live is obviously extremely sad, and I have every sympathy for Gary’s family and friends. I also have every sympathy for Gary – to take your own life is a terrifying thing for an individual to do.

But what struck me even more than the public outpouring of respect for this man, was the joyous tittle-tattle I overheard in my day-to-day life from ignorant people gossiping on buses, in shops, in offices…

On Monday, I overheard different people say – with evident delirious excitement at having something to dissect, despite their own clear ignorance of mental illness – such terrifyingly ignorant statements as:

-       “Ooh, did you hear about Gary Speed? Ooh, what was that all about?” (Said as if they’d just heard that someone famous had been caught having an affair, or something equally salacious.)

-       “How selfish of him. He had kids, and to do that just before Christmas? So selfish.” (Said as if to imply that if only Gary had waited until January 2, it would have been OK.)

-       “But I saw him on TV the other day and he didn’t look depressed.” (Said as if to imply that people with depression and mental illness wear their pyjamas all day, their pants on their heads and shuffle about dribbling.)

In all of these situations, the people these statements were said to agreed with the first person, and joined in the gleeful bashing of Gary Speed for being so ‘mental’, ‘selfish’ or ‘deceptive’.

I’m annoyed with myself for not butting in and calmly explaining to these people how frightening their ignorance was, and suggesting that perhaps it would be a good idea for them to find out a little bit more about the many types of depression and mental illness, so that they could have more empathy next time something like this happens. Because there will, unfortunately, be a next time. And next time, it may not be a public figure: it may be their partner, their friend or even themselves. Regardless of being a public figure, Gary Speed was also someone’s partner, father and friend.

But I didn’t say anything because I felt too angry and too upset with them, and I knew I would not be able to talk calmly – in all likelihood I would have fumed, ranted and maybe even cried. And these are not actions that would have effectively put my point across – more than likely I would have merely reinforced their view that people with mental health problems are ‘deranged’.

Because I do have mental health problems – I was diagnosed with depression four-and-a-half years ago, and was too ill to work for almost two years. While most of the time I am now much, much better than I was, like everyone with mental illness, I still have times when I struggle. And sometimes I don’t feel brave enough, or well enough, to talk to people about it – especially when I realise how ignorant they are about mental illness, or how amused they are by the topic.

Mental illness can affect anyone. It is not a joke. It is not a subject to be laughed about over the water cooler in the office. Someone feeling so desperate that they take their own life is not a topic for gossiping about like an excited fishwife.
Gary Speed’s suicide has brought several issues into the open air, but the one that is most apparent to me is the glaring and desperate need for us to keep talking about mental illness, to fight to remove the unfortunate stigma attached to mental illness, and to work to educate those who don’t understand mental illness.
Figures from the Mental Health Foundation suggest that one in four people in the UK will be affected by some kind of mental health problem. So it is imperative that the gross ignorance surrounding mental illness is addressed.
There are already some good campaigns being run that are trying to do this. Time to Change has a lot of information on their website about ways to talk about mental illness openly, and offers advice for people wanting to find out more. Put simply, talking tackles discrimination. It really is that simple. It can take courage to talk about mental health (and I know I’ve failed at times to speak up when I hear ignorance about mental illness), but it’s the only way.
Mind is another excellent organisation fighting to help people with mental illness and to raise awareness, and it was only on November 28 that they published an article showing that recent Mind research proved mental health was still a taboo topic in the media. It’s frightening.
We must take something from Gary Speed’s death, and if that something is the ability to talk about mental illness, suicide and depression, then so be it. The ignorance surrounding these topics needs to be addressed, and now is as good a time as any to start.
And let’s start by stopping decrying something as ‘mental’ if we find it unusual. Let’s start by stopping calling something ‘mad’ if it is silly. Let’s start by stopping using all those terms as ‘nutty’, ‘manic’, ‘crazy’, 'batty', 'loopy' etc in derogative, light-hearted or dismissive ways. Even if you don’t feel able to start talking about mental health, you CAN stop using those terms in the wrong way.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. I'm so pleased you took time to write this as there is still such a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding surrounding mental illness. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, just like having the flu or a broken leg is nothing to be ashamed of. It saddens me that our society is still way behind dispelling the myths. It can be extremely debilitating and sadly in this case cost a life. Like you pointed out, it is worth while reading up on mental health because you never know if a loved one, a friend or even you may suffer from a mental illness one day. I'm afraid like you, I had to hear comments such as 'Well he didn't look depressed...' and carefully and patiently tried to explain that this isn't how depression/mental health problems work. I still hear people say there is no such thing as depression, just people that feel sorry for themselves.

    I also have experienced severe depression on more than one occasion, which in fact led me to train as a counsellor. Sometimes it feels as though only people who have been through it can understand, I guess in once sense this is true, but on the other hand being educated on it can lead to people being more empathetic, spotting a potential problem and getting rid of the stigma still surrounding mental illness.The ignorance is terrible, dangerous even, for example; when a client has come to me in the past this kind of stigma has left them feeling ashamed, a failure in some way and worried that they are 'mad'. But also, this may lead to a person never seeking help in the first place.

    What also worries me are the new Govt. plans to take away disability assessments from Doctors and give them to 'independent' assessors. I am hoping that mental illness will be a subject that they will be very aware of and understand how it can affect someone so badly they are unable to work. My fear is, this won't be taken into account and they end up losing any benefits resulting in hunger, homelessness and further spiralling depression or other mental health problems that will in the end cause great suffering and even death. And this will ultimately not be good for society as a whole.

    Apologies for the long comment!

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