Last week I was honoured to participate as a speaker in the annual “It Takes A Community” forum organised by Maine Behavioral Healthcare. This year’s theme was social media and mental health. It is a topic close to my heart. My best friend Fran Houston and I live 3,000 miles apart, and have recently published a book sharing our experience using social medial and the internet to grow a strong, mutually supportive friendship between, in Fran’s words, a “well one” and an “ill one.”
Amongst other topics, the panel discussed people using social media to share their lived experience, whether as part of their personal response to illness, to help others living with similar conditions, or to participate in the wider movement challenging mental health stigma and discrimination.
Many, Fran included, share openly. Others are quite frankly too busy getting through one day to the next. Many have learned the hard way what it costs to raise their heads above the parapet. Or maybe they feel it is not their responsibility to enlighten a world that seems determined to misunderstand, misrepresent, and mistreat them. I agree it is neither realistic nor fair for society to expect those living with illness to challenge stigma alone, as I expressed in my closing remarks to the ITAC forum:
It isn’t just about sharing the stories of those who have mental illness or are living with that themselves. It’s about the families, the friends, all the rest of us sharing our stories of what that means to us and those who are dealing with this stuff. Because in terms of countering stigma it’s not the responsibility of those living with mental illness to convert the rest of us. We are all in this together. It takes a community. We’ve all got to step up to this.
Yesterday, my wife Pam and I arrived at our holiday cottage in the English Lake District. Talking with Pauline, the lady who owns the cottage, the conversation turned to the book Fran and I have recently published. Pauline was very interested, and there followed a genuine and open conversation during which Pam shared her own experience—described in the book—with stigma and discrimination.
This is what it takes. Connection. Conversation. Courage. The courage to say: “This is how it is for me.” To ask: “How is it for you? How do you feel, hearing my story?”
Why does all this matter? Because mental illness is hard enough to live with, day in day out, without society (which is to say, you and me) piling stigma and discrimination on top. Because people die from that. Because one in four or five (depending on how it is measured) live with mental illness. That means one in four or five of your family (yes really). Your friends. Your workmates or classmates. Your congregation, your fellow commuters on the subway, bus, or train. There is no us and them. There is only us. Be part of the conversation. Make a difference.
As Fran says at the end of our book:
There are many like me who live in invisible institutions of stigma, shame, and silence, the walls build by others from without, or by ourselves from within, Dismantling those walls invites connection. Be the gum on someone’s shoe who has one foot inside and one foot outside. Stick around. It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life. One little bit by one little bit. A smile, a wink, a hello, a listening ear, a helping hand, a friendship all work together to interrupt the grasp of illness.
Be open and honest, with your friend and others you meet. Judge not, for misunderstandings abound. Acceptance, understanding, and kindness can pave another way. Let’s.
World Mental Health Day
The World Health Organisation recognises World Mental Health Day on 10 October every year. This year’s theme set by the World Federation for Mental Health is psychological first aid and the support people can provide to those in distress.