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Taking the mental health bull by its horns

‘Mental illness’ or ‘mental wellbeing’? There is a tendency to tread softly-softly around mental health, but the direct approach works better

In language, we find convenient ways to close our eyes to reality and wish away our fears (Photo: iStock)
In language, we find convenient ways to close our eyes to reality and wish away our fears (Photo: iStock)



When I started my work with White Swan Foundation about seven years ago, people asked me what the new project was about. I would explain that we were creating knowledge on mental health and mental illnesses. Most often, the first reaction would be: “Why do you want to say ‘mental health or mental illness’. You will drive people away. Can’t you think of a ‘softer’ word?”

The same attitude was found repeating a few years later when we started approaching companies to work on employee mental health. “Not sure if ‘mental health’ is the right word. Let’s say ‘mental wellbeing’, perhaps,” I would be told by the young HR person.

Why is it that the word ‘mental health’ is not seen as the right way to talk about mental health?

When I speak with people who have had lived experiences of mental illnesses, I am often told that there are two emotions that first grip them–fear and shame. These are among those emotions that we, not just in our social life, but even in our deeply personal space, like to hide or hide from.

And, in language, we find convenient ways to close our eyes to reality and wish away our fears. Consequently, our need to ‘hide from’ using the words ‘mental health’ or ‘mental illness’. It’s time we know that this practice does not help those with mental health issues. They are forced into hiding their experiences and left to deal with their problems by themselves.

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Denial of a problem, for instance, is a common method to hide. Some of the earliest ‘coping mechanisms’ we develop include hiding the problem. Caregivers, too thrust denial. “You don’t seem to be having any issue. Don’t worry. You will snap out of it.”

What happens when those with mental health issues go through the hiding process? It creates delays in reaching out for a solution. Several people we know – colleagues, neighbors, friends, family members - are going through this delay.

According to an old US-based study, it takes an average of five years to make first treatment contact for a mental health issue. We may want to assume that this is true in the case of mental health issues that are of low severity, as they do not cripple our lives and are not easily detected. However, the study points out that such a huge gap was found even among cases classified in the highest severity of illness.

According to the 2016 National Mental Health Survey conducted by NIMHANS, 85% of those with a mental health problem will never receive professional help. So, we can safely assume that the treatment delays in India would be worse.

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Our deep-seated perceptions influence our behavior and actions and that of those who are going through mental health issues.

There are many ways we can remove our unfounded emotions around mental illness. One that I share the most is about understanding mental illness from the perspective of disability.

Our minds are tuned to seeing physiological problems and mental health issues through separate lenses. What we miss out in recognizing is the factor that connects them both – disability. While we empathize with a colleague who experiences temporary disability due to an accident, we may not be as forthcoming with another who misses meetings due to disabilities out of anxiety issues. Mental health issues create disabilities in us – permanently or temporarily. The next time you learn about someone’s mental illness, understanding their challenges from a disability perspective may help you remove your fears and empathize with them.

While speaking about the challenges of mental healthcare, we often remark about the huge shortfall of mental health professionals in the country, lack of access to services, widespread stigma and growing instances of suicide. We must, however, open our eyes to the more fundamental issues that we can affect change. Our fear, notions, attitudes and perceptions disempower us in making the right decisions.

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For a person with a mental illness, the pain caused by the symptoms of the illness is often lighter than the pain they experience due to the social challenges and struggles. Isolation, exclusion, lack of opportunity, joblessness, absence of social life cause lasting pain in them. And, it is that pain that we are all a part of. Because we carry a viewpoint about mental illness, we are stakeholders. And, as stakeholders, we must open our eyes, confront the issue, understand the pain and affect a mindset shift on the subject.

So that we call mental illness by that name and nothing else.

This is the first of a series, FundaMental Truth, on mental health. Manoj Chandran is the Founding CEO of White Swan Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that offers knowledge-led solutions in the area of mental health

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