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 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):