Are you ok?

It was a hot summer’s day, one of those days that feels almost airless.  All around was the chatter of people, and the clanging of barbells.  The air smelt like sweat and chalk.  Despite being surrounded by people, I felt totally alone.

okay.jpg

One in four people will experience some form of mental health issue in their life.  That’s no small proportion.  Think about the people in this room now, every fourth person is statistically likely to experience some form of mental health problem.  You might even be one of those people who is experiencing mental health challenges.  So why, when mental health issues are so prevalent in society do we stigmatise the subject, making it harder for those people to seek the help they need.

I like to think of mental health as being a bit like marmite.  I hate marmite.  I think everything about it is disgusting, but you might really like marmite.  It doesn’t matter to me why you like marmite.  It’s the simple fact that it’s ok for you to like marmite, and it should be the same with mental health.  It’s ok for you to feel like everything isn’t ok and I, and everyone else, have no right to judge you because of it.  Just like I don’t judge those people who like marmite.

If marmite isn’t your thing, consider it like this.  One in 79 people in the UK currently suffers from dementia.  That’s far fewer than those suffering from mental health issues and yet the conversation around it is much louder.  Now, don’t get me wrong, dementia is a cause near and dear to my heart, but what makes it so acceptable to talk about, and mental health so unacceptable?

A recent survey of young people found that almost 80% of respondents perceived a stigma attached to mental health issues.  Now, consider that 75% of all mental disorders occur before age 25[1].  The group most affected by mental health issues is the one least willing to talk about it, all because of the perceived stigma.

This needs to change. We need to turn up the volume on mental health and make it something we talk about just like we talk about physical illnesses.

In order to change the conversation, it’s important to appreciate why the stigma exists in the first place.

We are a country known for the “stiff upper lip” or more simply, not showing emotion in the face of adversity.  We are also lucky in the UK to have citizens from many other countries and cultures.  Take those from Ghana for example, where men don’t talk about their feelings[1], or perhaps those from Pakistan who, when surveyed, only half would socialise with a person with a mental illness[2].  Culture therefore is a clear basis for this stigma, and the multicultural nature of the UK has only served to strengthen this stigma.

Further, I believe that the nature of the perceived stigma has only served to reinforce the belief that there is a stigma.  By not speaking out about mental health issues we are only strengthening the belief that it’s not something we should be talking about.

Take for example Prince Harry, along with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, he is the face of Mind’s Heads Together campaign.  He kept quiet for 16 years after his mother’s death, simply because he “didn’t know how to deal with it”[3]. He may be heir to the throne but he’s not alone.

What’s it like to feel alone?  For me it’s a feeling of emptiness.  A sense of total numbness interspersed with crashing waves of overwhelming sadness.  Like being permanently cold no matter how many clothes you put on. 

I remember that moment like it was yesterday.  I’d felt this way for months but I’d carried on acting like everything was ok, whilst at the same time avoiding people and conversations about how I really felt because I was worried my colleagues and friends would think less of me.  Until someone I hardly knew asked me “Are you ok?”

So how can we remove the stigma around talking about mental health?  I believe there are three key things that will help us achieve this.

Firstly, we live in a society driven by popular culture where we are constantly connected to some device or another.  And whilst this can be a bad thing, for example Instagram has been called the worst app for mental health, in the fight to break down the stigma around mental health, I believe it is a truly powerful tool.  The social media campaigns using celebrities, including Prince Harry and Cara Delevingne, allow young people to see that those they often idolise are speaking out about their issues on platforms they readily use and engage with. 

Secondly, mental health needs to be treated like physical health.  We need to promote the use of mental health first aiders in schools, universities, and offices.  There are brilliant courses run by Mental Health First Aid, which take between 1-2 days to complete and equip people with the skills to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental ill health, allowing them to start the conversation with those who may be experiencing a mental health issue.

Finally, we can actually talk to each other.  The only way we can change people’s attitudes is if we speak out.

“Are you ok?”

“No.  I’m really not.”  

By taking the time to ask that simple question, he allowed me to feel like it was ok not to be ok.  That’s something everyone should be able to experience if they need to.

So let me finish by asking you one simple question. 

Are you ok?

About Emma

Emma is a lawyer and CrossFitter at Reebok CrossFit Thames. She wrote this essay to present at the Summer Young England and Wales Programme. 

 Emma Rubenstein

Emma Rubenstein

 

[1] Sangu Delle, “There’s no Shame in Taking Care of your Mental Health”, Ted , 2017

[2] Ayse Ciftci, Nev Jones and Patrick W. Corrigan, “Mental Health Stigma in the Muslim Community”, Journal of Muslim Mental Health, Vol 7, Issue 1:Stigma 2012

[3] Prince Harry: I sought counselling after 20 years of not thinking about the death of my mother, Diana, and two years of total chaos in my life, The Telegraph, 19 April 2017

[1] Thomas Insel, “Towards a New Understanding of Mental Illness”, Tedx Caltech, 2012