Why it’s so important to believe people about their mental health
When Meghan Markle said she thought she was going to end her life while living with the royals in the UK, netizens said: No, you actually didn’t feel like that. When UK MP Nadia Whittome said she was taking time off because she was suffering from PTSD, people once again said no, she is just stressed, stress is normal. And when tennis player Naomi Osaka recently said she would stop giving press conferences due to the impact they are having on her mental health, people decided for themselves what the phrase meant and found it to be unfair, unreasonable and overly dramatic.
It is relevant that these three public figures are women of color, and therefore particularly susceptible to scrutiny. But it also indicates a deeply problematic trend in the way mental health is discussed in the public domain.
Mental distress is largely invisible. You can’t see the symptoms of most mental health issues, like depression and social anxiety (both of which Osaka has experienced). And when the person talking about their struggles is famous or successful, it’s easy to be skeptical. It’s easy to think: well, they look good. This disbelief occurs when it comes to celebrities, but also to ordinary men. For example, undergraduates today speak fluently about their mental health issues, and I think some academics’ mistrust is evident. Not all students can be this sick, by logic, so none of them are.
Part of the problem, ironically, is exactly how much we talk about this. Led by charitable campaigns like Time To Change, there has been a huge drive to speak more openly about all mental health issues. This, coupled with the vagueness of what terminology to use, means people are more confused than ever about what mental distress does and doesn’t “matter”, and what we should be doing about it.
But here’s the real crux: you have to believe people. You have to take their descriptions of mental distress at face value, just like the doctors have to believe the person sitting across from them or the whole system will collapse. Even those with acute mental health issues – in a way severe enough to end up in emergency rooms – say they are not taken seriously.
Despite advocacy efforts, stigma and mistrust persist top reasons people don’t seek mental health treatment. But for health systems and society as a whole to function effectively, we need to believe people when they describe how they are feeling, including the large number of experiences that we cannot or have not seen. .
It would help to remember that anyone can develop a mental health problem or a mental health problem, even celebrities. This is partly because these symptoms are linked to biological vulnerabilities – inflammation at overactive brain regions – and biology doesn’t care if you’re famous. But these vulnerabilities also interact with stress in the outside world, and celebrities also experience stress.
The nature of stress can be different. Celebrities don’t tend to be in crowded accommodations or worry about where their next meal is coming from. But loneliness and persecution are well-established triggers for mental distress and diseases.
It is not easy to relieve mental health problems. But since stress clearly makes the problem worse, reducing stress seems like an obvious way to help. If someone like Osaka comes forward, under the dazzling lights of the media, saying what they need, those in power really should do something about it. Mental health awareness is one thing, but what we need now is mental health support. When anybody raises their hand, whoever it is, we have to listen to them.
Lucy Foulkes is Honorary Lecturer at University College London. His book, Losing Our Minds: What Mental Illness Really Is and What It Is Not, is now available.
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