I filled in a job application recently. As always I had to list all my illnesses and disabilities from birth to now. I listed what I could recall. I’m not good at these sort of questions. I tend to have an illness, live with it for a time and then forget about it. Occasionally I’ll need to know about it- in which case I usually ask my wife! I came to the section on Mental Health problems. And paused. The question was phrased quite precisely. Are you currently receiving treatment for any Mental Health problems? I could answer, honestly, “No. I am not under treatment for any mental health problems.” (I have had time of work recently due to a short-lived episode of depression. This has now been resolved. I received no treatment-although I was prescribed a course of anti depressants, which I chose not to take.) But my reaction surprised me. I had no problem saying that I had mumps when I was a child. Why should I view depression any differently?
I began to wonder about this and discovered that there is a sense of shame around emotional problems. I dislike the terms mental illness and mental health problems. They medicalise distress. If I am depressed, I want to know why. If I am psychotic, I want to know the meaning of my psychosis. What might I be defending against that needs such a drastic response? I have spent a number of years in therapy. I found it helpful and healing. Many of my friends shake their heads and say something g like “I don’t want to know what’s in my cellar.” Or attic. Or shed. (Choose your locked room.) I find this strange. If I know what is in my cellar, I have nothing to fear from it. It’s there because I haven’t got round to throwing it away. Or I think I might want it some day. It’s not there as a prisoner. Or a forgotten orphan. So why would I have a sense of unease about declaring any emotional problems I might have encountered?
I live near Stoke Mandeville hospital which has its spinal injuries unit. It is not uncommon to see people in wheel chairs around town. There appears to be no sense of shame attached to them. Getting aground is more complicated than if one is able-bodied. But that’s an issue for town planners. Not a destigmatisng campaign. We now have the Paralympics where athletes with some kind of disability compete. One sees all manner of physical injury on display. Artificial limbs abound. The key message seems to be one of “Look at what we can do. Not what we can’t do.” Soldiers come back from wars with their wounds. Frequently they are given medals for their bravery. This seems to be less prevalent in the realm of mental health. I have yet to see anyone given an MBE for their bravery in combat with schizophrenia. Or depression. Or mania.
The dictionary definition of shame is interesting and revealing. The OED gives this as part of its entry “The painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one’s own conduct… fear of offence against propriety or decency…” It also has roots in a sense of guilt or disgrace. How sad! Rather like blaming someone for walking on a hidden mine and losing their legs. In what way are they to blame?
in my thinking about this blog, one image that came constantly to mind was that of Christ’s stigmata. These wounds were displayed when it was helpful to others to so do. When they gave hope reassurance, comfort. (John 20:27) There seems no sense that he was ashamed of his wounds. Rather the contrary if one takes a view that Christ’s death was redemptive. So, maybe it’s time that we can allow our emotional battle scars to be displayed. “Wear your poppy with pride” was the slogan for supporting survivors of armed conflict. It was a successful slogan. I wonder what a Mental Health flower might be? A rose because it is impossible to separate the thorns from the flower? A Lenten Rose because it will grow and flower in seemingly inhospitable times? Perhaps we should commission the RHS to create a Mental Health flower. What would you ask them to create?