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Articles > Mental Health February, 04, 2013

The Evil of Mental Health Discrimination

Gregor McCann
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8.40 / 10

I walked into the kitchen. My heart was beating faster than it ever had. I had been watching TV a second before. Now I could hear my mum screaming at the top of her lungs. She was wailing out in agonising pain. When I reached her a pool of red was expanding on the floor. My dad was holding a towel to her wrist. My brother was crying. I went into the living room in shock. I fought back tears. My family left for the hospital. I cleaned up my mum’s blood and waited for them to return. It was almost unendurable. A day later they were back without my mum; she needed surgery on her wrist. She’d live, just.

The evil of mental health discrimination

Photo by Attila Acs

The above story is an accurate recollection of the events that I experienced a few years ago. I am not trying to get sympathy. Sympathy is the last thing I want because, as I see it, sympathy is part of the problem. My mum suffered from schizoaffective disorder for most of my childhood (she still does but is much better than she once was). It is more complicated than this, but a brief summary of it is a loss of contact with reality and mood problems. She used to hallucinate, oscillate between euphoria and depression, and go through bouts of paranoia, things like that. As I said, however, I am not writing this article in an attempt to receive a flood of consoling comments, but to argue that discriminating against people who suffer from illnesses like this is repulsive.

There are two main types of discrimination against mental illness that I have witnessed and both need to be fought at every turn, although the one I’ll cover first is clearly more harmful. The first usually comes in the Neanderthalithic expression ‘window licker’ or some other equally moronic comment. This is the view that I only have a limited direct experience with, but I have heard enough stories about it to confidently say that it is prevalent throughout society. The most vivid memory I have of someone talking this way about people with mental health problems is one of being in my friend’s (he is no longer my friend) uncle’s van. His uncle was talking about how mental health isn’t a real problem and how ‘window lickers should be fired if they need time off work.’ This is the sort of phrase that will retard society back into the middle ages if we aren’t careful.

This sort dismissive or sometimes aggressive discrimination is wrong for obvious reasons. Mental health problems are illnesses. It is not something that the person chooses to inflict upon themself (in fact my mum even told me once that she wouldn’t wish it on her worst enemy) and it shouldn’t be treated as it sometimes is: a tool for acquiring favours or positive prejudice. It is neither of these things, believe me. In my experience, at least, I am certain that my mother would have much preferred to live a normal life than to be captivated with notions of imprisoned souls inside clocks, or miscellaneous people trying to steal her children, or paranoia that forced her to refrain from stepping near a window, or the inexorable urge to shave her head, or the suicidal thoughts that constantly plagued her.

She would have happily traded in what little positive prejudice these things gave her to relinquish herself of these ailments. So please, I urge you, if you are one of the people that think in this way, or you know somebody that does, stop it now, because it is wrong. Mental illness is an illness (I find it astounding that some people need that explicitly spelled out) and should be treated as such. It is akin to paralysis, perhaps not in its severity – in most cases – but in the sense that people who suffer from paralysis and mental illness have no choice in the matter. It is inflicted upon them without their consultation. Next time you hear somebody aggressively discriminate against someone with mental health problems tell them to shut the fuck up (or your polite equivalent).

This brings us on to the second way that mental health is discriminated against. This is the polar opposite, in a way. This is the overtly positive discrimination. This is the lovey-dovey, sickening, one-step-too-far discrimination that, in my experience at least, only makes the problem worse. Here’s the thing that most disabled people have in common: they don’t want to be reminded of their disability every time you talk to them. This is the sort of discrimination that I’m talking about, the good natured kind that leads people to do more harm than good.

This comes in the form of incessant questioning about the sufferer’s mood or medication or treatment or hospital visits, or anything else that is covertly synonymous with you are not normal. Again I am only talking from my own experience so do not take what I am about to say as a rule of thumb, although for me it is one. To adequately cheer someone who is suffering from mental illness up you have to make them smile. This has been a very helpful tool for me when it comes to my mum, but I must admit that it took me until I had left secondary school to realize its usefulness. I insult my mum on a regular basis. I say things like ‘you need to lose weight’ and ‘mum, you’re getting old,’ and you know what? She insults me right back! She is not made of glass; she is a normal person with an illness. Instead of morosely talking to her about her illness or medication I engage in some harmless banter with her, and what’s great is that it really works. She smiles and laughs instead of crying and being depressed. Of course this isn’t the only way to make someone smile, but the rule is transferrable. If you know someone who is suffering from mental illness, do not start a conversation with something like ‘I hope you’re feeling okay’ or ‘cheer up, things will get better,’ but treat them like a normal person instead. Make them smile. Make them forget if only for a second. Don’t make them depressed. This seems obvious when it is analogised in a different illness: nobody walks up to a person in a wheelchair and says a thing like ‘how’re your legs treating you?’ So why is mental illness different? Short answer: it is not. I reiterate. Make them smile. It’s the least you can do.

The sensitivity of this issue compels me to iterate once more that this is all based on my own experiences. I understand that everyone is different. I understand that some people may find the fact that I regular insult a mentally ill person repugnant, but you must remember that she is my mum, and she enjoys the banter sessions that we have. I’m assuming that nobody disagrees with the first point that I made (if you do please comment because I’d love to hear why), so from the second point I would reiterate (at the risk of boring you) the important point. Make them smile. That is the least you can do.
This is a link to a website that is campaigning to fight against mental illness discrimination (I would be thankful if everyone would at least take a look):

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  1. Bethany White

    This is a great article. As I suffer from social anxiety disorder, I also find that people can be discriminative towards me. Even more so, family members often dismiss the fact that you could suffer with a mental health problem and often avoid conversations about it. Like it’s a taboo subject. I completely relate to this article and I’m sure many others do as well.

  2. Megan Gordon

    This is a really good article. It really shows how people who aren’t meaning any harm can be causing more harm than anyone else! Everyone just needs to think before they speak, the same as in any situation with any person.

  3. Rachel Mcsharry

    this is a brilliant article. I understand im not the same as your mother, but i got both of those examples form each of my parents. hen they found out i self harmed, my dad told me i was lying, that there was nothing wrong with me, that i was stupid. and my mum didnt know how to act, she was scared to touch me. neither one of them offered help though, they just told me to suck it up more or less (i say they, my dad did, my mum didn’t mention it)
    I would prefer to be able to just live life normally and not have to pull a hoodie on in school or in public to hide cuts and scars, just to avoid the looks, either confused or sympathetic.
    i hate how people treat it as not real, i get blamed a lot for the stuff i do and the way i act. you wouldn’t blame a cancer sufferer for loosing hair? more education is needed in schools on this matter.

  4. Mirian Mayo

    Unfortunately my friend, there is a lot of cruelty and ignorance in this society, and people who doesn’t experience situations like that don’t want to understand or don’t have enough intelligence to understand. It’s easier to put what they consider wrong or different to them aside, discriminate them and carry on with a selfish life…

    There is a lot to fight and lots of square minds to educate in order to make the world a more tolerant and kind place to live… 🙂
    Hopefully tolerance and adaptation, premium health service free for everyone as well as education, environmental/animal awareness & protection will be some day a priority issue against money, money and money…. Being optimistic, someday human brain will develop to realize selfishness and ignorance is the mistake that cause most trouble, wars and avarice..Where a sense of collectiveness will reign…and ‘all the best for everyone, we are all the same, let’s help each other’ could be a slogan 🙂
    I have recently heard a say ‘get the best and fuck the rest’ and thought people who think like that is the real problem.. Specially if they could be in a situation of power. And I consider that sentence is a good description of a big part of the society.

    Congratulations for your courage and your willingness to help to tackle prejudice and fight for a good cause! I hope my words express my understanding of your situation..

    Good luck!

    MiRi MaY

  5. Very insightful article and a great read! While I hate to admit it and try not to, I’ve definitely fallen victim to the latter (overtly positive) discrimination problem that you’ve mentioned so it’s great to be reminded of the very true reality that this too, very often does more harm than good (because instinctively this doesn’t always click naturally with people).

    Let me make it clear that I despise bullying discrimination in all forms and I’m not saying that the following in anyway exonerates said behaviour. However, with regards to it not being the fault of the sufferer, whilst this is very often the case (as I assume it is with your mum), it’s not always. I have a number of friends who regularly smoke weed, and well, I constantly remind them of the rate at which they’re increasing their probability of becoming schizophrenic in the near future (especially those who smoke skunk). I know my anecdotes appear overly convenient to you, but we have a family friend who became schizophrenic for exactly that reason, which is why this article resonates all so strongly with me (he was an extremely intelligent oxford don and now severely struggles in). Indeed, I wouldn’t dream of purposefully discriminating against a sufferer of it; but I digress, great article!

    • Gregor McCann

      Thank you very much. Well, given the amount of weed that is currently being smoked in the UK, I am honestly not surprised by that one. I also have friends who smoke weed too much and over the years I have noticed a decrease in their mental ability. However, in this article I was referring to the mental conditions which are inflicted upon them by external factors (abuse, genetics, etc.) not the ones inflicted upon the sufferers through their own actions. I do agree that prolonged drug use can be a problem, but (and I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this) I also think that recreational drug use, within reason, can be a relatively safe and fun thing to do.

  6. Cz

    Mental illness is something that lots of people run a mile from, which is why I avoid telling people I suffer from depression. My friends ask me why I wasn’t in college and I just shrug my shoulders. The stigma attached to any kind of mental illness is just… I don’t really have the words I guess!
    My teachers are sick of my constant absences and I wish Depression could have some kind of physical portrayal, then it would be acceptable.
    My ‘illness’ is ignored by my family because they don’t know what to say. I wish people would just talk about it.
    Loved the article, nice for people to talk for a change!

  7. umay sener

    This article is excellent In fact I showed this to a friend whose boyfriend is suffering from the same illness and she is wondering that how was your dads and moms relationship during the treatment

    • Gregor McCann

      It strained quite badly, but my dad was very supportive; he never left her because of the strain of the illness.

  8. Katy

    What a brilliant article! It’s nice to see that information about mental health is, albeit very slowly, is finally coming into the media.

  9. Leah Thompson

    Loved this article. Very honest, insightful and interesting. You should be very proud to write such a clear story on a taboo subject like mental health.

  10. Gregor McCann

    Hey guys, just wanted to let you know that I’ve created a twitter account. If you could follow me I’d appreciate it (link below) 🙂

  11. Tina Ledger

    This article was so engaging and informative! My mother has suffered with bipolar disorder for most of my life, and I’m also writing an article about having a mentally ill family member. I also agree that sympathy is a major issue surrounding mental illness and the sufferer. Another issue is discrimination within the family, and fighting my own prejudices. Though this is not specifically outlined in your article, it has helped me no end in how I might begin to structure mine. Great read!

  12. Oh no!!! I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise I’d left such a long comment D:

  13. Fantastic article. I’m really glad I stumbled across this, and I’ve saved it in my bookmarks. 🙂

    I’m mentally ill too, although the doctors don’t take me seriously enough to get anything diagnosed. But I never speak to anybody at all about things any more, apart from my mental health co-ordinator, or invisible people on forums like this one.

    At first people would treat me like a ball of cotton wool when I told them, or immediately start talking to me less. I’d get so much leverage with things that I was given space to get worse and I’ll admit, became lazy at some points. Or… hmm. I don’t know if the word is “lazy”, but I allowed my fears and irrationality to fully control me; I didn’t fight. I succumbed to to fears of speaking to people, of leaving the house, of being in public places, etc. And I feel as though that was lazy. I wish I had gotten a 1st in my first year.

    I’m in Year 2 now, and I genuinely feel as though the tutors are sick of me. I’m in a lot more; I’m interacting with people I’ve never met; I will leave the house without the 2-4 hour ritual of making sure everything is PERFECT. But instead of understanding that I am… or I think I am… improving, I’m a nuisance now. I’m STILL not in on time, with everyone else; fail. I’m STILL not confident enough to pin my work up for crits; fail. I’m STILL not doing work to a second year ability even though I was barely present for the first one; fail.

    I feel as though even if I attempt to bring up the fact that I didn’t do my work over the weekend because I spent most of it crying, or mutilating myself, or trying very hard to think of reasons why I shouldn’t just jump out my bedroom window, I become that – the excuse-making window-licker. And to be honest, I understand why; there are things people do that everyone find so easy, like going out to places. Why the hell should it be difficult to put on clothes, leave the house and turn up somewhere? What kind of excuse is that?

    I don’t know. Sometimes I feel as though because I’m not actively screaming in the middle of lectures or trying to hang myself on the studio lights then I don’t have a “proper illness”. I’m just making excuses, and I’m not trying hard enough. Then sometimes I feel as though I’m trying to do something impossible and I need to SLOW DOWN and remember that I am NOT WELL and that I need to learn to breathe and sit up before running a 5k.

    It makes my head hurt. >_<

    • Gregor McCann

      I’m really glad you enjoyed my article 🙂 I’ve witnessed something similar to what you’re talking about. My mum, for a very long time, allowed herself to be consumed by her illness; she would inadvertently use it as an excuse to not leave the house or do anything with her day. I have seen how destructive that can be and I’m happy for you that you’ve taken the first, important step and decided to fight it.

      Don’t be so hard on yourself. I’m not going to fall into the trap of the treating you as if you’re made of glass, but you should still understand that you’ve overcome a facet of a real illness. Just take another step; put your next assignment up for crits and see what happens.

      I know it can seem trivial to some people—and by the sounds of it even yourself—but you should understand that it is an excuse. You aren’t inflicting these things upon yourself. I’m not saying that there aren’t things that you can do to pre-emptively preclude these feelings, but that the feelings themselves are unwelcome visitors, not ones you wished to experience.

      You hit the nail on the head so I won’t try to amend your statement there; Breathe and sit up before running a 5k.

  14. Emma W

    Very well written and argued piece, thank you for sharing this with us. I enjoyed it very much.

  15. SB

    A very good article and i think it’s positive that matters like this should be drawn to people’s attention, however your choice of words somewhat surprises me “This is the sort of phrase that will retard society back into the middle ages if we aren’t careful. ” As you will of course be aware ‘retard’ is a term that (although in the past was a medical term) cause a lot of offense to people (myself included – having a family member with severe learning difficulties and mental health problems) and i would have thought you would have been rather more sensitve to this, however apart from this i agree with what you’re saying and i hope mental health discrimination ends, as it creates such nasty stigmas around mental health which only make the problem of discrimination worse.

    • I have to agree with SB on this one as I noticed this as well. In light of the article you’re writing I don’t think it was your best choice of words, even if it doesn’t strictly have to have a negative connotation.

    • Gregor McCann

      And thank you very much for your positive feedback. I am very glad that you enjoyed the article. 🙂

    • Gregor McCann

      I did not use the word for its negative connotations or even remotely for the effect that you are implying. I meant ‘retard’ as in ‘hold back’ or ‘delay progression’; I am not so naive and foolish (I would hope at least) to use such an abhorrent term when said term is a facet of what this article is arguing against.

    • Pedant

      As much as I hate to be “that guy”…

      From the OED:

      Definition of retard
      Pronunciation: /rɪˈtɑːd/

      [with object]

      delay or hold back in terms of progress or development:

  16. Sophie Campbell

    I’m always quite relieved to find other people who have shared the experience of having a parent with a mental health problem. My dad has always suffered from quite severe depression, and merely the fact that there are other people out there who know what it’s like makes me feel like I’m not the only one.

    Not enough people talk about mental health and I’m glad you have; I hope very soon we can rid mental health of its negative stigma.

  17. Julline Purple333

    I really liked your points — those were well-made. What annoyed me as I read this, however, was that you suggested that those with mental health issues are not normal, thereby implying that they have something wrong with them (past anything clinically diagnosed). What you should say, I think, is that they are atypical, in that they do not fit social or statistical norms. It’s just a nicer word, with no harsh connotations. Great writing, though, I liked it 🙂

    • Gregor McCann

      I assure you that implying that mental illness sufferers were intrinsically abnormal was not my intent. However, I must admit that tact is not my forte. I am pleased that you enjoyed my article though; thank you for the comment. 🙂

  18. Kim

    I too agree with the latter kind of discrimination. I have suffered with clinical depression from a young age, although it is not as severe as the many other kinds of mental illness, I tire of hearing “it’ll be alright, dust yourself off” and ” it’s just a bit of depression get over it”. I love it that my close friends take the mic and join in the fun with them and sometimes don’t even mind being referred to as the ‘window licker’ of the group. This is because I know that they understand but I take great offence to colleagues and peers making passing judgment of something they know nothing or very little about.

    Any cause that raises the awareness of the conflicted minds of those suffering mental illness has my support.

  19. Thank you.

    I’ve suffered mental health for most of my pubescent and adult life, was diagnosed with borderline last year at the age of 32.

    There seem to be three approaches.

    I’m to be avoided, or smothered, or the wonderful people that tell me that it’s just another part of the wonderful person that I am. And then dont talk about it unless I do. That give me the space and support to get stronger on my own and not rely on other people to do so- which is also a big part of my disorder.

    Ad yes close people make fun of me. It helps. You can’t take things like this too seriously…. It’s not hurtful if someone you know and love tells you point blank your being a total nutcase.

    I think it’s hard for others though and this make a change is amazing. Like everything different things work for different people and I think a lot of people would like to be more helpful but don’t know how, or are scared of making things worse.

    Awareness is the way forward. Especially when so many more people year after year after year are being affected by these hidden disorders.

    Thank you for this article I really enjoyed it x

  20. Eira

    Well written and heartfelt piece, thank you for sharing 🙂

  21. Vicky

    I must say I completely agree with the latter way of discrimination, I have friends with problems (not mental illness per-se but close enough at some cases) and I find the best way to calm them down is to steer away from the subject. its like seeing your friend holding back tears and asking “are you ok” or “are you crying” … it doesn’t help and if anything it makes it worse.