Our Perception of Mental Illness is Killing Us

Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy makes readers recoil at the methods by which patients were treated for shellshock, mutism and other psychological effects of World War One by the cold-hearted Dr. Yelland, who used electroshock therapy and burning to ‘stimulate’ soldiers into suddenly ‘forgetting’ the ‘horrors of war’. Furthermore, we are outraged at the depiction of those that suffer from the psychological effects of war, in, for example, the works of Wilfred Owen, as ‘malingerers’ and ‘dead-beats’. It outrages us that people in the past (and certainly not now, of course) lost sight of humanity, favouring instead the option of telling people, essentially, to ‘man up’ and get back out into the living hell that is the physical manifestation of their illness. It’d have been like stepping back into the nightmare from which you have just woken, still drenched from a cold sweat and not quite finished with the palpitations.

   A grief stricken American infantryman whose buddy has been killed in action is comforted by another soldier. In the background a corpsman methodically fills out casualty tags, Haktong-ni area, Korea. August 28, 1950. Sfc. Al Chang. (Army)  (  U.S. Army Korea Historical Image Archive/ Flickr )


A grief stricken American infantryman whose buddy has been killed in action is comforted by another soldier. In the background a corpsman methodically fills out casualty tags, Haktong-ni area, Korea. August 28, 1950. Sfc. Al Chang. (Army) (U.S. Army Korea Historical Image Archive/ Flickr)

This indignation is interesting. Interesting because we recognise that the perception of mental health was a problem in First World War Britain, easy to critique when fictionalised, but when we take a moment of introspection and look into our own attitudes, our society’s perception of mental health, and perhaps even our doctor’s attitudes, then it becomes all a bit too real, all a bit hush hush and all, well...a little bit embarrassing.

And that’s the issue.

Mental health has been propelled into fame again for a number of reasons. Controversy has surrounded the recent Germanwings pilot, Andreas Lubitz, and the inconceivable nature of his actions. Why did he do it? Whilst we are unclear about his mental state, the tragic event has thrown up a lot of questions. I was embroiled in an opinion thread on the question of whether it is a disgrace that Lubitz was included in a memorial to the victims of the crash, which was started by an ITV chat show in the UK. Overwhelmingly, the paticipants were livid at the prospect of this murderer being honoured as the rest of the human beings involved in the crash were.

The actions of Lubitz were, obviously, horrific, wrong, and deplorable. I haven’t resolved quite where I sit on the quandary of the memorial, but the perceptions of mental health on the thread were fascinating, regardless of nobody having obtained all of the facts. Women (mainly) were insisting that those who have had a diagnosis of depression should not have the chance to fly an aeroplane. We can all see the sense in that; if Lubitz was depressed and not in control of his actions, then yes, he should not be able to fly and compromise the lives of others. But, to insinuate that all who are depressed are ‘incapable’ or beyond help is just, to me, absurd and highly unjust. I don’t really have a solution for this complexity, but it does pose a question for legislators and health professionals: how do we measure who is ‘fit for work’ without depriving humans of their rights? I also wonder how many perfectly capable employees are being told (indirectly) that their skills, work ethic, passion and aptitude are void because they have the stamp of ‘loony’ emblazoned on their forehead. It almost seems to hark back those horrific times when being pregnant was seen as an ‘abomination’ in the work place and that myth (is it?) that women who are mothers cannot progress in the workplace. Ugh.

Reading numerous reports about Lubitz highlighted a trend in the way in which he was described by his friends and colleagues. You know, the typical, ‘he was a regular guy’, ‘he was capable and friendly’, ‘we never suspected a thing’. No. They didn’t suspect a thing, because somewhere in this ‘murderous mind’, Andreas Lubitz was a human being. He had a fantastic job, good friends and ‘normal’ interests. Who could blame a man that has possibly been labelled as ‘mentally ill’ from hiding it from those closest to him, from wanting to seem ‘normal’, from averting the prejudicial beacon from illuminating him as a dead-beat right-off?

Lubitz aside, it has become suddenly fashionable to care about mental illness now. I am not attacking that, but perhaps the integrity surrounding that. We need to be careful about how to proceed with how we treat those who have suffered from any form of mental illness and disease. We must proceed with dignity and caution with a firm anchorage in the truth that people are human and have a right to speak freely about their lives without fear of being stigmatised. I think we can all agree on that, but how many of us can truly say that we feel comfortable talking about our own mental health and that of the people around us?

That is why I am so thrilled that the subject of Alzheimer’s Disease has been depicted so beautifully in the recent film Still Alice directed by  Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland whose USA release was in 2014. The depiction of the dehumanising nature of this disease which affects the mind so harshly, was strangely beautiful and human to watch, as well as frightening. The film’s protagonist, Dr. Alice Howland (notably a Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University) and her family are presented in a no-nonsense, business-like manner, with the intention of preserving Alice’s dignity throughout. Alice is a human, above all. A human, fighting, and even more importantly talking about her struggle to her esteemed peers, essentially in the workplace (interestingly, included in the narrative is the scene where Alice must divulge her ‘secret’ to her line manager, and the fear that surrounds this face-threatening act.)

And, as a teacher, I worry. I worry about the increasing number of children who are diagnosed with mental health issues. I am worried about, at that already seemingly embarrassing time of life, if they will see mental health as an embarrassment, a weakness too big to surmount. I am forever grateful to the YouTube community for doing their part in breaking down the preconception of mental illness. Young YouTube favourites such as Tanya Burr and Zoe Sugg, among others, have not only shared their materialistic views with us, but have opened up to their audiences (which are well into the millions) in order to share their personal experiences of anxiety, their (if society would have you believe it) potentially career changing ‘secrets’.



In the UK, research by Movember has found that in 2011, 75% of those that died from issues surrounding mental illness were men, that the most common illnesses’ were depression and anxiety and the highest rate of suicide was in men between 30 and 34 years of age. Presumably a reason for this could be that perhaps men struggle with being able to talk about their illness because the stigma surrounding mental illness emasculates them. The First World War is over, but we seem to be sending out the same message to men about what is acceptable to talk about and what isn’t.

Anyone can, and will, be affected by mental illness in their lifetime in some capacity, so why, if it could help in any way would we restrict people from being able to discuss, rationally, what their problems feel like?

We need to eradicate this archaic thinking to stamp out stigma for good.