This morning I heard a radio interviewer ask:
“ASDA’s “mental patient” Halloween costume was just a bit of fun wasn’t it?”
It needed to be asked because I expect many people listening to the story thought it was just that, a bit of fun.
But the question itself upset me.
I grew up with a mother who had bipolar disorder. I never told my friends because I felt it was something to be ashamed of. It was embarrassing, and as a teenager I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain what was wrong with her. I remember wishing she had something “normal” like cancer, which other people could understand.
Living with and caring for someone with a mental illness can be a very lonely place. I know people were often wary of my mother when she was ill, because they didn’t know what to do or say. The easiest thing to do in those situations was to avoid her - and the rest of the family as well.
40 years on I am happy to talk about my experiences, but while I may have moved on the ADSA costume is a reminder of how little progress has been made in removing the stigma of mental illness among the general public.
So in a perverse way ASDA has done us a favour. At least this morning the TV and radio were giving airtime to people talking about what it is like to live with a mental illness. These were articulate people who get up, have their breakfast, go to work and look after their families and happen to have a mental illness.
But there are people who cannot cope with the stigma that still surrounds mental health problems. As the former footballer Stan Collymore, who has a history of depression, tweeted: “Do you actually realise how many people are hanging themselves because of being frightened of the stigma?”
Do you actually realise how many people are hanging themselves because of being frightened of the stigma?Wording is CLEAR. MENTAL PATIENT
— Stan Collymore (@StanCollymore) September 25, 2013
We may have made progress, but there is still a long way to go before people with mental illness – and their families – feel able to speak about their situations as openly as those who have “normal” physical illnesses.