Approximately 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem this year.
1 in 6 people struggle with a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week.
Mental health problems are very common, but why then is there still such a stigma surrounding these illnesses? Because that’s what they are, they’re diseases, like cancer or heart disease. As a society we’d rarely think twice about explaining to someone why we had to have an operation, or a physical check-up, but as soon as it’s the mind which is unwell we feel like we have to justify our illness. There’s something about the fact that a mental illness is invisible, unquantifiable, and in its own way unique to each person which, in general, makes us uncomfortable. It’s not a broken bone, you can’t see the damage in an x-ray. The ability to heal depends so much on the ability to express how you’re feeling, and when it is possible you feel like your illness isn’t ‘important’ enough this can be a very difficult thing to do.
A contributing factor to the stigma surrounding mental health problems is quite simply that mental health care providers are not viewed on an equal level to physical health care providers. They still don’t receive the same amount of funding as hospitals, five years after ministers pledged to create “parity of esteem” between NHS mental and physical health services. Chief executive of the charity ‘Mind’ Paul Farmer has said, ‘Mental health has been under-resourced for too long, with dire consequences for people with mental health problems.’ A fact which is increasingly alarming if we look at recent news showing children as young as three self-harming. If they don’t have the support which they need at this extremely important point in their developmental process, it will be very difficult for them to get better on their own. As Farmer said, without the right support people with mental health problems ‘’are likely to become more unwell and need more intensive … support further down the line.” Because these illnesses are not awarded the same funding as physical illnesses, a suggestion is created that they are not in fact as important, serious, or life-altering as a physical illness which is simply not true. I think this is an integral contributor to the sentiment that you almost have to justify you are ill if you have a mental health problem, because they’re not widely viewed of as an equal to a physical illness.
On Tuesday the Duchess of Cambridge gave a speech about Children’s mental health, and what can be done in schools to help children with mental health problems. The work that she has done alongside Princes William and Harry with their ‘Heads Together’ campaign is an extremely important step in making people more aware of mental health, and encouraging all of us to forget about the stigma surrounding the issue. And this is something that the arts can also do, not by glamourising or dramatising mental illnesses, but by presenting a realistic depiction of how these conditions affect the everyday lives of ordinary people, and by suggesting alternatives to how mental illness is viewed in our society. In fact, the arts has a unique advantage in that it is a subjective medium through which to explore ideas, meaning people connect to what is being presented to them. This means those who feel isolated by their mental health problems are no longer alone, and helps those not affected to understand something that is very difficult to explain. It is only by opening up this channel of communication that we can render the invisible world of mental health visible, and consequently start to build a society in which mental health is given the space and the platform it deserves.
Mental health is important, and the way it’s viewed in our society needs to change. As with many things, I think that has to start with a conversation – a conversation which may have already begun. And I think that theatre is one way to keep that conversation moving in the right direction.