World Mental Health Day 2016

Today is World Mental Health Day, and many people on my social media feeds are talking about it. Most of it is great! Some of it is not. I wanted to write a brief something to address some of the things I have seen today, to try and help people understand a little of what it is like to have mental health needs, and also to get some of the frustration at seeing these posts out of my own head. I am wiring this in the spur of the moment, so if there are holes, or it’s not fully thought out, please forgive.  This example is probably very UK-centric, if you know of something that is similar from other cultures/countries, please let me know.

Have you ever played a party game where a bar of chocolate was placed on a plate, a timer started, and you had a minute to eat as much as you could? Oh, and you’re wearing an oversized hat, scarf, gloves, and have to use a knife and fork. It’s a fun game, but also really frustrating! If you’ve ever played this (and I’m pretty sure that most children/people who grew up in Britain have played this at least once), you’ll know how difficult it actually is to try and cut up a cold bar of chocolate with a butter knife. If you’ve never played it, why not give it a go at your next party?

This game is a pretty good analogy for having mental health needs. You want to do a specific thing (whether it’s eating chocolate, or just getting on with your life), and there’s something that makes it heaps more difficult. Maybe you’re only wearing the gloves, maybe you have the full outfit plus a winter coat and your knife and fork are made of plastic. There are different difficulty settings. But the outcome is that it makes it harder to do the thing you wanted to.

Some people who haven’t played this game might be asking, why wouldn’t you just throw off the gloves, ignore the cutlery, and stuff your face with chocolate? Well, in the children’s party game, that would be cheating and you’d quickly find you weren’t invited to play any other games in the future. In terms of the analogy, maybe you’re not lucky enough to be able to “just” take off all that stuff. Those gloves are really stuck on, and sometimes wearing them is enough of a restriction that you can’t take them off yourself. You might come up with some strategies to manage with the gloves on, but it takes more effort on your part, and can be pretty tiring.

Imagine if this wasn’t just for a children’s party game, but for every meal you ate. You don’t get different cutlery, you have to keep all the winter accessories on all the time. Soup would become a distant luxury. Eating would be hard. Which would make everything else a bit harder too, because you’re tired. Having to use extra energy to manage the impediment caused by the gloves/hat/scarf etc. means you have less energy to do other stuff, like focus during conversations. Or you might start to plan your meals well in advance so that you know you’ll be able to take your time while eating, that takes energy too and restricts your time, so you can’t do other things.

Having a mental health need is not a choice, and if it could be easily overcome, people would definitely choose that option! If those gloves could be taken off, they would. So please, have a little consideration before you say to someone “just get over it! It’s not a big deal!” or proceeding to tell them how easily your own gloves came off. You wouldn’t do that to someone with a broken leg, so please don’t try to create hierarchies of illness.  Maybe you don’t realise that you might be wearing privilege earmuffs. Instead, on world mental health day (and on every day), ask, “can I help you with that?” and listen to the response.

About Jess Urwin

Lecturer in social work at De Montfort University, youth justice researcher, musician, crafter, constant reader.
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