We live in a society suffocating in self-expression. Call me old fashioned, but I’m not convinced that social media and an intrusive information overload into someone’s personal life is a positive. Theoretically in our society, anything goes. In recent years, as the gradual stigma around some areas of mental health begins to fade, we are encouraged to express ourselves and told (in an attempt to further de-stigmatise it) that there is little difference between physical health-–which we have always recognised–-and mental ill-health. Not only do I believe this to be wrong, I actually think it is both a damaging and unhelpful perspective. Trying to force something as complex, emotional and nuanced as mental health into the mould of physical health (just because it’s something we better understand) is useless, and further alienates sufferers from the people trying to understand them.
Despite recent rising acceptance, stigma and shame around mental health still exists, and I personally believe trying to equate it to physical health is the wrong way to tackle it. Society does not perceive there to be any shame in a physical injury, while mental health is plagued with misperceptions and taboo. Failing to acknowledge this by trying to reduce mental health issues to purely that of the physical diminishes aspects of it that are vital for people to understand. We instead must accept that there are difficulties surrounding mental health that simply do not exist for a physical problem. For example, arguing that there is little difference between them totally ignores the power of the mind in the healing process. When you are injured physically, your whole body and environment is geared toward recovery–you aren’t fighting against your bones in order for them to heal, and your body wants to help you recover–there is no question of whether you want to or not. When you are mentally ill, the picture can look very different. Speaking as a past sufferer of an eating disorder, I know from experience how fighting against what you think your brain is telling you is quite different to acquiring a physical injury. This disjunction between brain and body is not an aspect of physical illness. When you have mental health issues, your mind can convince you that maybe you don’t want to get better. Often, mentally ill people don’t even recognise they have a problem. Trying to compare this to physical health is unhelpful as they couldn’t be more different in how they are recognised and dealt with by the brain. Afterall, a mental health problem is an illness of the brain, which is the body’s processing organ. How can we expect an ill brain to function and recognise its own illness like an illness of the body? Arguing there is little difference doesn’t help either sufferers trying to understand why they feel like their mind is rebelling against them, or the people around them trying to fathom their experience.
Leading on from this point, mental health creates reactions in the people and environment around you very differently from a physical injury. Breaking a bone doesn’t scare the people around you (apart from the initial shock), or make them angry and frustrated, or cause them to distance themselves from you, further exacerbating the problem. Physical injuries tend to create and harbour environments of positivity and support for the person recovering. On the other hand, mental health problems have a profound effect not only on the sufferer but also on those that surround them. An attempt to equate the two leads to confusion and a failure to appreciate the differing effects of both on the sufferer, whilst also minimising the effect of mental health problems on family and friends. My mother would tell you that the time I was ill was the most frightening of her life, and the time she needed most support. If this need for support is ignored in an attempt to make mental health easy to understand, we risk further damage.
We must accept that mental and physical health are vastly different and stop trying to squash them together to make confusing or frightening things more palatable. Both are of equal importance, but require different understandings as well as treatment; mental ill-health is experienced through the perspective of a malfunctioning brain, which colours all our experience. There is, I believe, a vast gap between affording both equal priority and treating them as similar, or in competition with each other. We have to accept that mental health is harder to understand than a physical injury is, and work with this knowledge to from not only better treatments, but also a more balanced attitude on the important differences between them.