What do you do if someone you know or a stranger nearby says something that fuels inequality and injustice?
I’ve been thinking about this question posed by The School of Gentle Protest in relation to my family’s experiences of mental ill health. It is well documented that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year but even though so many people are affected, there is a strong social stigma attached to mental illness which often leads to discrimination. The sad fact is that this discrimination is perpetuated by society as a whole; from friends and family to employers and colleagues. It impedes recovery and contributes to social isolation; just what you need when you are having a really difficult time!
My daughter Abigail has been struggling with acute mental illness since she was 13 and although we have been incredibly well supported by mental health services (CAMHS) we are continually shocked by other people’s attitudes and opinions. Abigail, like many people living with an ‘invisible’ illness, is not afforded the same compassion and kindness that she would be if her illness was a physical one. She has spent most of her teenage years feeling punished, marginalised and misunderstood. Last summer, aged 17 and after spending a year in crisis, Abigail made an attempt on her life.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people aged 20-34 years in the UK, yet nobody talks about it. We should. Not only do we need to find ways to interject when we hear people making comments about mental health that stigmatise or discriminate we need to initiate conversations that encourage a societal shift in thinking and behaviour.
Abigail’s suicide attempt gave us a space to reflect and recalibrate our relationship with the world. We are grateful for life and battle our way through knowing that as Rumi says ‘the wound is the place where the Light enters you.’ We understand that people are scared to talk about mental illness and that it’s not very helpful to either be confrontational or evangelical but we have stitch on our side! I made the jackets in the photograph to create a space to talk, to make the invisible visible and the story human. The statements are about recovery and resilience, empathy and support; they make people curious and encourage questions. We hope that when we wear them we can, if only in a small way, change attitudes to mental illness and encourage kindness.