08 October 2019 | by David Murphy
Tomorrow is World Mental Health Day and, to commemorate this, BPS President David Murphy has written a few words about his own experiences with, and understanding of, mental health.
By definition, mental health problems can be the source of considerable distress and disability, however what can make them even worse is a sense of stigma and feeling different from those around you.
The truth is that 1 in 4 of us experience a mental health problem each year.
In a family of two parents and two children, on average, one member will experience a mental health problem.
On a single decker bus there will be, on average, 15 passengers who are experiencing mental health problems.
There can be a lot of understandable reasons why we don’t talk about our own experience of mental health problems or those in our families, be it shame, embarrassment, or simply wishing to protect privacy.
However, the fact that we don’t talk about them contributes to a perception that mental health problems are less common than they really are and can maintain shame and stigma.
Even though I’m a Clinical Psychologist, and now President of the BPS, I don’t often talk about the fact that I spent the first several months of my life in a psychiatric hospital.
This was because my mother (who is happy for me to share this) suffered from a severe mental health problem soon after I was born, and we were admitted together to a mother and baby unit.
Later in her life these problems recurred, and she was admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit on several occasions. Thankfully her mental health is much better now, but there were times when she was very unwell which was incredibly hard for her and those close to her.
Whilst considerable progress has been made in developing effective treatment for mental health problems and ensuring those treatments are accessible, they aren’t always successful and, even when they are, recovery often takes time and relapse is not uncommon.
However, on this World Mental Health Day we can all resolve to do something to reduce the stigma of mental health problems.
If we, or someone close to us, are experiencing mental health problems we can find someone we trust and tell them about it. We don’t need to share anything that’s particularly private, in depth or makes us feel uncomfortable.
We can simply say something like:
“I just wanted to let you know that I’m struggling with a lot of anxiety at the moment and it means I find it difficult to be in certain situations.
You don’t need to treat me any differently, in fact I’d rather you didn’t, but I just wanted you to know”.
Sometimes it can be difficult to know how to treat other people who have confided in us. If someone close to you tells you they have a mental health problem, don’t feel like you shouldn’t mention it again or that talking about it will make it worse for them.
It can be a big help just to let the person know they don’t have to hide it or feel ashamed.
Moreover, the chances are that, like me, someone close to you has experienced a mental health problem, and it can help to let the person know this, perhaps by saying “I know a bit about what you might be going through as someone in my family has also experienced severe depression”.
That being said, everyone is different so we do need to beware of offering up unsolicited advice or solutions based on our own experience.
But letting someone know they aren’t alone, that you empathise, and just being open, available and continuing to relate to the person as an individual can make a big difference.
For psychologists, stigma has an extra dimension in that we can see a mental health problem as a negative reflection on our own professional competence.
Contrary to popular myth, training as a practitioner psychologist doesn’t confer immunity to mental health problems, just as cardiologists aren’t immune to heart attacks, and recent surveys suggest that they are actually quite common among mental health professionals.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise, because a common reason for people being interested in a career in psychology is personal experience of mental health problems.
Indeed, the first time I heard the word “psychologist” was when I was referred to a clinical psychologist as a teenager for help with anxiety-related difficulties I was experiencing at that time.
From a clinical point of view, we know that treatment can be vital to support people with mental health problems. But that doesn’t mean that we as individuals can’t make a difference too.
Every single one of us, no matter what our job is, whether we are 17 or 75, can make a difference.
If someone talks to us about their experience of mental health problems we have the power to help. Not by trying to “solve” their problems but simply by being compassionate and normalizing in our response to them, showing that we care and that we still see them for who they are.
If you are interested in reading more, the fantastic Time to Change campaign have lots of examples on their website of how to ask someone about their mental health and how best to respond when others share their experiences.
I believe that we can all find ways to combat the stigma surrounding mental health, share our own struggles and support others with theirs.
David Murphy, President 2019-20
David is a Clinical Psychologist with over 30 years’ experience working in the NHS.
He managed a large psychology service in London before becoming Director of the Institute of Clinical Psychology Training at The University of Oxford.
He is currently leading a longitudinal study of leadership development in NHS clinicians based at the University of Edinburgh.