Currently in New Zealand there is a campaign running to eradicate the stigma of mental illness. This is a bold goal by anyone’s standard. Can it be achieved? Personally I would love it if could be achieved in the timeframe of the campaign, three years.
I support the Mental Health Foundation, who are behind the campaign. They do some great work but I wonder whether an organisation, that seems to prefer to talk about mental health than mental illness, can really make this happen. All of us have mental health to varying degrees but only some of us have, or are affected by, mental illness.
It’s common that celebrities of all types come out to support such campaigns. Your country will have its own selection of them. I’m thinking Ruby Wax, Glenn Close and lately the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for a starter. Celebrities in New Zealand (remember we’re a small nation) tend to be sports personalities, television personalities and maybe (but probably not) a stray politician. Step Forward campaign here is drawing from some of those celebrities to back it. Think John Kirwan, Pita Alatini and Gordon Harcourt among others.
I don’t in any way mean to knock their contribution. I think it is great that they and others stand up and be counted among those affected by mental illness. My concern comes that I suspect for everyday kiwis, it is easier to accept that a celebrity is affected by mental illness in some way, than it is to say, accept that their neighbour, workmate or even family member has a mental illness. And unless that level of mental illness is accepted, then we won’t eradicate stigma.
A week ago I found myself in one of my neighbour’s lounge in the company of a policeman and several neighbours. Another neighbour had earlier that evening expressed some pretty wild anger by punching holes (with a steel pole) the length of our wooden boundary fence. The police were called and the angry neighbour was eventually (but not easily) carted away to the Police Station for some ‘cool down time’. The rest of the neighbours (now also just a bit angry) were gathered together with the remaining policeman to compile a statement.
The policeman was collecting our contact details, and when he got to me, he wanted to know if I worked. I admit I started to feel uncomfortable because I didn’t really want to get into this with my neighbours. They have probably worked out that I don’t work, but I didn’t want to discuss the reason why. Thankfully the policeman very quickly went to the next question.
Why was I uncomfortable? Recently some statistics came out as part of the NZ Health Survey 2014. Amongst other findings was this one:
In terms of being comfortable with a new neighbour who is different to them:
- 76.4% comfortable with new migrant
- 76.0% comfortable with different religion
- 75.1% comfortable with LGBT neighbour
- 74.8% comfortable with different ethnicity
- 51.7% comfortable with mentally ill neighbour
Source: Statistics NZ New Zealand General Social Survey, 2014
So we kiwis are pretty comfortable with difference, but when it comes to mentally ill neighbours, 48 % don’t want anything to do with us.
They don’t want me as their neighbour.
That’s why I wasn’t about to tell my neighbours (or the policeman) that I have a mental illness. One out of two of my neighbours (and I have a lot due to the shape of the property) would not be comfortable with me anymore. While I keep my mouth shut, I might not be doing anything for stigma, but at least my neighbours are comfortable with me. They might be
happy okay to see Pita Alatini admit a connection to mental illness on a television advert, but being happy with the person next door is an entirely different thing.
Going back to the #StepForwardNZ, having two ex-rugby players and a number of television personalities is going to help the cause, but in my opinion, it is not going to break the camel’s back.
It’s possible that I come from a somewhat unique position. It is not at all easy to admit that you have Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). It is a particularly disliked mental illness. Think manipulative drama queens (apparently!). While I am pretty open with friends and family that I have a mental illness, I know that they will either not know anything about BPD or they will have enough misinformation to immediately hold bias against me. It’s just not worth going there, and so I don’t often admit to them what type of mental illness I have. You can say I am not helping stigma, but I am protecting myself. Until there is more acceptance of the existence of mental illness, and as a result stigma is reduced. At that point, there is more chance that people like me, with BPD, can be accepted for who we are.
I signed up for the Step Forward NZ campaign because I support in essence what the Mental Health Foundation are striving for, but unless they have a whole great deal hidden under their hats, I don’t think that what they are doing will be enough to eradicate the stigma of mental illness. Being one of thousands to put my name on a website is easy. Telling my neighbours that I have a mental illness and that illness is BPD, is a whole other ball game.
Somehow I need to know my neighbours will still accept me. I need to know that I can just be. I know that there is effort to be had from both sides. Until then that few rugby players, etc won’t be enough. I have yet to see one of them admit to having BPD. Depression and Anxiety are a little bit easier to admit to (I know from the 17 years of mental illness before BPD was diagnosed). I don’t mean to offend anyone with that statement, but it’s simply my opinion.
Until I can admit as easily to having BPD as to having Fibromyalgia we won’t have stepped far enough against the stigma of mental illness.
Unfortunately, Glenn Close is right when she said:
“The mentally ill frighten and embarrass us. And so we marginalize the people who most need our acceptance. What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation.”
Newsflash: For those who read my last post, I am happy to tell you that I have found somewhere to live. I shift at the end of the month. This is a huge relief!
Why #Stepforward Might Be a Step Backward For Mental Health by Jess McAllen
What we need is sunshine… and a few other things.
Image credit: Richs5812, Wikipedia Commons