Jia Zhe Su breaks down five common misconceptions around mental health explored at UCL’s Mental Health Awareness Day.
A couple of weeks have gone by since reading week, most of which you might have spent catching up with friends and family back home, or watching that Netflix series you only found out about at the end of Christmas. You may have also set aside some time on the first Saturday of reading week to attend What Do You Think? A UCL Mental Health Awareness Day at the Institute of Education. Around a hundred people turned up to attend the talks, workshops and discussion groups that ran throughout the course of the day. I was able to sit through the full gamut of speakers who were invited to share their experiences with mental health, and even after helping to organise the event, I came away from each talk with renewed perspective. Understanding just that bit more about mental health is so important if we are to work towards our goal of correcting misconceptions about mental health and open up discussion around it. To that end, here are five common myths that were addressed in talks during What Do You Think?
1. Not many people experience mental health problems.
The UCL Heads Up campaign released its report on mental health providing key recommendations to UCL in November last year. They found that one in three students experience mental health problems at some point, with anxiety and depression among the most common that UCL students reported. If UCL has roughly 35,000 students, that’s over 10,000 students experiencing issues with mental health. Catherine McAteer, head of Student Psychological Services at UCL, described the alarming rate at which demand for mental health services has grown and the insufficient amount of resources allocated to managing that demand. Moreover, these statistics are fairly consistent with the general population, which means that even if you’re not among that one-third of students, chances are you know someone who is.
2. You can easily tell when someone is autistic/has ADHD.
As a medical student, I found the talk by Dr Giovanni Giaroli, a consultant child and adult psychiatrist, immensely fascinating. He laid out both autism and ADHD as disorders with a very wide spectrum of how they can manifest, not just among different people but within different environments. Surely we must all be aware of the stereotypical squalling child throwing a fit in public, who never listens to anyone no matter how patiently or consolingly they’re spoken to.
In light of that, I was particularly struck by his anecdotes of patients who were able to interact with other people as one would normally expect from a non-autistic person, but who had to make immense effort to mask how great a task it was to understand being spoken to and then communicate reciprocally. Even more surprising was Dr Giaroli describing a father and son being diagnosed with ADHD at eighty and fifty years old respectively, both of whom had gone through most of their adult life themselves being unaware of their conditions, let alone the people around them.
3. Drugs can cure mental health problems.
I wholly admit to having bought into this one myself while living with a family member who was suffering from depression. Seems fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? They make drugs for everything nowadays, so if you medicate you should be fine, shouldn’t you?
If only it were that simple. While it is undeniable that psychotropics (drugs used to treat psychiatric conditions) are largely to thank for how much better mental health is managed nowadays, the fact still remains that they do not always work and many can have unpleasant side effects which make them difficult to take on a regular basis. Often, pharmaceutical treatment involves a trial and error approach of trying one antidepressant after another to see which one works best, and it is very common for drugs to become less and less effective on recurrent depression.
As is the case for most things in medicine, there is no ‘magic bullet’ that can get rid of depression or anxiety on its own – rather, many treatment plans involve a combination of antidepressants and other adjuncts like cognitive behavioural therapy or exercise, and can differ greatly from person to person.
4. Once you develop something as serious as schizophrenia, there’s no getting better from it.
While many believe that medication can solve any mental health disorder, there is also a view that some disorders are beyond any sort of treatment. Jonny Benjamin, a mental health campaigner who has been awarded an MBE for his work, spoke at length about living with schizoaffective disorder (a combination of schizophrenia and another mood disorder, which is often depression). Having suffered suicidal thoughts at multiple points in his life, he spoke about how easy it was to believe that he would never be able to live normally ever again.
This was a sentiment echoed by Fiona Geddes, an actor and playwright who has written a one-woman show called Normal/Madness, based on her experiences of caring for a family member with schizophrenia. In her talk, she spoke of sometimes wishing to be free of the responsibility of caring for her relative, knowing that it was likely that they would suffer from schizophrenia for the rest of their life.
Both talks were compelling to listen to, though it was the underlying message which I found most poignant. While it is true that the vast majority of people with schizophrenia will not recover completely from it, the fact remains that current treatments can be very effective at ameliorating symptoms, allowing people a quality of life outside of their schizophrenic or depressive episodes. It was these moments of clarity and mental wellness that were described as making it worth the effort of not giving up at the lowest point, as immensely difficult as it may be.
5. There’s nothing you can really do to make a meaningful difference to someone with mental health problems.
It can seem an impossible task, figuring out what to say or do when your friend or relative is deep in depression, flitting in and out of the periphery, wanting to do something but at the same time being afraid of doing the wrong thing. Just talking to them about something, anything, may not seem like much, but it is what stopped Jonny Benjamin from taking his own life and in 2014 he began a social media campaign to Find ‘Mike’, the stranger who persuaded him not to jump off Waterloo Bridge six years earlier.
“It felt like I could finally talk to him about everything,” Jonny recounted in his talk. “He wasn’t there to judge or anything like that, he just listened.”
It’s not uncommon for people with mental health problems to feel trapped in their minds, unable to put their mood into words. Even so, you should not understate how far a simple “how do you feel?” can go in terms of taking that first step towards recovery. In addition, doing anything alongside them can help greatly, as explained by Maria Ferguson, a contemporary poet and dance artist. Even the most minor of tasks, such as making food, tidying up the house, or spending some time outdoors, can make all the difference by being construed as accomplishments for the day. That’s not to say you should be badgering in your approach, but it is worth remembering that just making yourself available to talk or listen can be a more powerful gesture than you think.
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