With a 2015 just around the corner and a General Election on the horizon UK mental health charity Rethink asked five bloggers what their one wish would be for people with mental illness for the year ahead. I was asked what I’d like to see in our schools and colleges.
Like many with mental health problems, my first symptoms appeared when I was a teenager. At the time, I had no idea anything was wrong. I knew adolescence was meant to be a rollercoaster, what with the ‘raging hormones’ and such-like, but I had no idea that my feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing weren’t just a normal part of teenage ‘brooding’.
Looking back, I sometimes feel quite angry. Why didn’t someone realise? Why didn’t *I* realise? I can’t now think of a more obvious case of depression. But with so few realistic portrayals of mental illness on TV at the time, my knowledge was very limited. I knew that my mum experienced depression, but I didn’t know what that meant. And besides, for every day I was accused of misery, there were ten more where I disguised my mood with humour. A dark and cynical humour, admittedly, but my teenage friends loved it. To me, some people were naturally miserable, I was one of those people, and there was nothing that could be done.
I was, of course, entirely wrong. There’s no cure for depression – that really would be a Christmas dream come true – but almost everyone with mental health problems can, and will, benefit from treatment. This is one of the key ideas behind campaigns like Time for Change (which is led by Rethink in partnership with Mind). If people can be taught to recognise the symptoms of mental illness, and realise that treatments are both available and effective, then who knows how many lives could be saved and how much suffering could be spared? This is especially important in children and teenagers, since pre-emptive or early intervention can avert a lifetime of relapsing-remitting illness. But this rather begs the question, if we’re willing to spend tens of millions teaching adults about mental health, why don’t we teach it at school? Why isn’t mental health on the national curriculum?
It’s particularly puzzling when you consider the much bigger benefits of education beyond simply raising awareness. Talk to almost anyone with a mental health problem, and at some point they’ll wearily lament that, ‘people don’t understand‘. It’s fair enough; mental health problems, almost by definition, can involve some unusual beliefs and behaviours that don’t necessarily make sense from the outside. If we lived in a compassionate world, this wouldn’t matter. Suffering would simply be recognised, respected, trusted, and treated. But as much as the welfare state and the NHS try to sustain these values, the UK currently feels as far away from a climate of trust and compassion as I’ve ever known. This is a world, where we’re encouraged to wonder whether wheelchair users are secretly lazy, and dismiss substance abusers as inexcusably crazy. Such judgement, when coupled with ignorance, is where the real tragedy is made. Not mental illness itself, but stigma; the misconceptions, false assumptions, and myths that cause as much suffering, if not more, than mental health problems in their own right.
This Christmas, it’s been genuinely heart-warming to see so much donated to mental health through the Guardian Christmas Charity Appeal. Mental health desperately needs more money, and every pound brings a little more hope. But for that hope to be realised, and for the desperation to end, we need much much more. And the only way that’ll happen is if ‘people do understand‘. So this year, my one wish is for the gift of knowledge,
‘Dear Santa, please put mental health on the national curriculum.‘