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It’s 2023, and yet ‘mental health’ is still a phrase seldom associated with anything positive.

 

In fact, in my experience, I’ve found it’s often said with a grimace. A wrinkle of the nose, or a moue, or even a sneer. Rarely a neutral expression. Rarely said matter-offactly. It’s still very much a taboo topic, despite the notion that we are very much ‘with-the-times’ these days.

 

Historically, of course, most societies were of the ‘put up and shut up’ persuasion. Depression or anxiety were signs of weakness. Mental health conditions that caused behavioural differences were treated with fear, derision or both. People were expected to grit their teeth and carry on with life despite their struggles, because heaven forbid that said struggles interfered with their productivity, or their social life, or their outward image.

 

Actually, what am I saying? Historically? It’s still largely the same now.

 

Small steps forward have been made. There is now a discourse surrounding mental health in society. Soap operas cover it. Workplaces claim to care about it in their employees. There’s a Mental Health Month (May) and a World Mental Health Day (10th October… yes, tomorrow). And yet… understanding and sympathy is still frustratingly limited. A sense of ‘otherness’ divides people with mental health conditions, and people without them.

 

And the damage it does is almost beyond comprehension.

 

Almost.

 

I say ‘almost’, because I’m going to do my level best to express it now.

 

Deep breath.

 

Here we go.

 

I have known people who are in denial about their mental health conditions. Eating disorders, anxiety, depression… all of which were taking their predicted tolls on their lives. But they wouldn’t seek diagnosis. Wouldn’t seek treatment or other support – not even from their friends. Because that would mean letting someone in. Letting someone see their pain and their struggles. Admitting that they’ve hit their limit. Keep in mind that this is in a society that values independence and self-sufficiency and the ‘grin and bear it’ attitude… so no prizes for guessing where their trepidation stems from.

 

Another contributor to this aforementioned trepidation is the stereotypes associated with various conditions – and not just mental health ones, but also neurodivergence. Take autism, for example. A developmental condition that is often comorbid with mental health conditions. So often, I’ve seen it represented with one cookie-cutteresque character. Rocking backwards and forwards in a corner, obsessed with trains (or cars, or birds, or some other hyperfixation), socially stinted. And yes, there are people whose neurodivergence presents that way. But not all of them. Not nearly all of them. This one-size-fits-all approach does more harm than good, in my opinion. Because I once knew someone who, for a long time, didn’t believe they could be autistic. Who shied away from it – ran from it, even – because they weren’t like that cookie-cutter character, masked or unmasked. They even once had someone tell them that they couldn’t possibly be autistic, because they didn’t present in this stereotypical way. That person spent far too long unsupported in their position on the autism spectrum – and the mental health conditions that came with it – because it is so misunderstood. So much so that they misunderstood it too, until they researched it.

 

And so there are people suffering in silence. Often through fear. Fear of two kinds.

 

Firstly, fear of being treated as a delicate flower, unable to cope with the stresses and strains of life. Because I suppose it is natural, when someone is diagnosed with a condition of any kind, to adapt your responses to them in accordance with that situation. Some people don’t want special treatment – in fact, it scares them. I am one of those people. There’s a line between being mindful of someone’s condition and treating them differently because of it.

 

And fear for their image. Of being seen as unable to cope, or unable to be counted upon, or unable to function as a human being with no mental health conditions would. Because of all those things I talked about just now. All those adjectives that have long since been attached to people with mental health conditions. Fragile. Unstable. Inept. Unworthy. None of which should be synonymous with mental health conditions. Not now we know better.

 

But still, mental health diagnoses are often viewed as a death sentence.

 

Not always literally – although of course, they can lead to suicide. Figuratively, though. A mental health diagnosis is something that a person can carry for the rest of their life, whether the condition is active or not. But it does not have to define them. Storms don’t last forever, as they say, however cliched that might sound. When do you ever hear stories about mental health recovery? Not nearly as much as you hear dark, depressing stories about mental health. Happiness and mental health conditions are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to experience joy with a mental health condition, just as it is possible to lead a long, healthy and fulfilling life. Those notions of mental health diagnoses eclipsing all hope and satisfaction in life are outdated. And they should be thrown away.

 

How do we do so, though?

 

By starting from the ground up.

 

Progress has been made, as I said. But not enough. That is why I’m so grateful to Ami Spencer for hosting this event, for using their platform to spread awareness, as well as writing mental health themed books like Broken and The Storm Within Her. I also wrote a book with a strong mental health theme – The Summer We’ve Had covers a lot of conditions: anxiety, depression, PTSD and Dissociative Identity Disorder. (I’ve also put together a list of mental health themed Sapphic books so you can fill your TBR with them – find it here.) With every book that’s published – in any genre – with well-executed mental health representation, we shuffle forwards a tiny step. In a similar vein, the language we use has a bearing. It’s why I’ve been referring to ‘mental health conditions’ throughout this article, rather than the more pessimistic phrase ‘mental illnesses’ or ‘mental health issues’. To neutralise them, rather than portraying them as dirty or contagious (which, I’ve found, is what the word ‘illness’ connotes).

 

In a similar vein, you may have noticed a recent increase in euphemisms for ‘suicide’ being used on the Internet: ‘unalive’ and ‘su1c1de’ being the two main ones. This is chiefly to get around the ruthless computer algorithms, which censor or shadow-ban posts that talk of such topics. While the intentions behind the algorithms may be sound, it is not without its drawbacks. Being forced to censor these topics by using code words simply reinforces the notion that they are something to be avoided, and flies in the face of everything we should be doing to raise awareness and normalise mental health conditions.

 

So, to summarise: we should be talking about mental health more, and in a more neutral way. That’s the nub of it. I’m not telling everyone to broadcast their struggles far and wide for the whole world to see – not if they’re not comfortable. Rather… they shouldn’t feel they have to hide. If they want to be able to talk about it, or seek help, they shouldn’t have to fear retribution or stigma. I am guilty of hiding my struggles, but I am making an active effort to be more open about my own depression with my friends.

 

Because there should be no reason to hide. Mental health is the veritable backbone of life.

 

At least, that is what it means to me.

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Twitter: @kblakemanwriter

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www.katherineblakeman.com

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