Appearing on a podcast hosted by Isabel Oakeshott, the previous political editor of The Sunday Times, Dame Joanna Lumley spoke out about how she has perceived people jumping on a “mental illness bandwagon”. She also commented that this misappropriation of ‘normal’ human pain to mental-ill health, is hurting those who actually experience mental illness – how true is this? And are Dame Joanna Lumley’s comments harmful?
Given how many stories around mental health appear in the news, from lived experience features to reporting around the state of affairs on acute secondary care wards, it’d be easy to assume we have won the battle, mental-ill health is no longer stigmatised. Unfortunately, we know this to not be entirely true, it is however, very common.
How common are mental health conditions?
According to the Mental Health Foundation, around one in five women and one in eight men are likely to experience a common mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, self-harm, panic disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder. These numbers are probably much higher in reality, especially among men who are less likely to seek help for their mental health.
In the UK three times as many men die by suicide than women, with the highest rates found in men aged 40-49. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to experience physical and sexual abuse, leading to high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
People within the LGBTQ+ community are also more likely to experience mental health issues. This is not because being LGBTQ+ comes with its own inherent mental health issues, but because many from within this community experience adversity, discrimination, trauma and hate crimes.
A study by Stonewall found that in 2017, half of LGBTQ+ people surveyed had experienced depression and one in five experienced anxiety. They also found that almost half of the trans people surveyed had considered taking their life.
Since the first lockdown in March 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many people across the nation have struggled with their mental health. From parents having to juggle work and home schooling, to teenagers who have been isolated and left feeling anxious and unsure about their future.
Figures from as recent as the Christmas period found that worrying about the Omicron variant caused a steep increase in anxious and depressive symptoms. While the Royal College of Psychiatrists forecasted in December that there will likely be a ‘tidal wave’ of new cases of PTSD among healthcare workers and survivors of severe cases of Covid-19.
The current prevalence of experiences of mental-ill health has not appeared erroneously. In fact, mental-ill health has likely always been as common as it is today, only, we were not able to discuss it in the ways we do now.
Only 10-15 years ago the sympathetic language we now use to talk about those who experience issues to do with their mental health, was largely missing. For fear of stigma, misunderstanding and misconception many people suffered in silence.
This is not to say that this does not happen still, however we are making progress in the right direction. Which is why claims like those made by Dame Joanna Lumley can be potentially harmful. Sweeping statements such as claiming people are jumping on a “mental illness bandwagon”, or dictating what is “properly clinically depressed”, do not actually serve those that “really are mentally ill”, as Ms. Lumley put it.
Generalised statements such as this, in actuality only serve to further stigmatise common experiences of mental health conditions, and to pigeonhole them, instead of accepting that they exist on a spectrum. To add to this, suggesting that people are equating experiences of mental-ill health with grief, is not helpful.
Depression, for example, is a very well defined and separate human experience to grief and making the assumption that people who believe they are depressed, are actually grieving without having the awareness of that difference, is hugely demeaning.
- See also: 'Parents' mental health has worsened over last two years, survey says'
- See also: 'How is TikTok changing the way young people relate to their mental health?'
- See also: 'The power of language: re-thinking mental illness de-stigmatisation'
On balance, owing to the wider discussions around mental health, access to resources online, NHS services such as eConsult etc., people in 2022 understand and perceive the reality of their mental health more clearly than they ever have before.
Is there any real harm to consider when people misappropriate mental illness for ‘normal’ human experiences?
In the past we have used our platform to discuss the possible ‘cons’ of mental health entering wider public discourse. In this article we explored the power in language, especially psychiatric language, how it used, when it is used and who by.
For this article we interviewed Dr Lucy Foulkes, an academic psychologist and honorary lecturer in psychology, from UCL. When pushed on whether or not there is possible danger in making mental health an accepted facet of human experience - especially if it means, as Dame Joanna Lumley eluded to, that people who really are struggling with mental-ill health aren’t receiving the treatment they need – Dr Foulkes said:
“The huge push to talk more about mental health and illness over the last decade or so is broadly a good thing. It’s brave and important that people in distress are starting to talk more, so that other people feel less alone, and there can be more compassion for and less stigma about this topic. There has been an unintended consequence, which is that when you release psychiatric terminology such as ‘PTSD’ and ‘bipolar’ into the public consciousness, these terms can be taken on by people for whom they might not be useful or accurate.”
On the misuse of psychiatric language, Dr Foulkes pointed out that “if everyone is using the same words, there is no language left for the people at the sharp end of the spectrum.” This is a real concern, and within communities of mental health services users, experts by experience, advocates, and activists, a topic of real importance.
This is to ensure that those who do experience some of the most stigmatised mental disorders, such as: bipolar disorder, PTSD, borderline personality disorder/emotionally unstable personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder and schizophrenia and psychosis, have ownership of the language they need to articulate their experiences, without discrimination or misunderstanding.
However, this is not, as it appears, Dame Joanna Lumley’s point of contention. Instead, it appears to be that people are generally associating their struggles with mental health/illness. If the above statistics from MHF and Stonewall tell us anything however, it’s that experiences of mental-ill health are in fact common.
The more we talk about those experiences and symptoms, as they exist on the wide spectrum of less invasive to more invasive and distressing, the less likely people are to suffer in silence, and ultimately the goal is for fewer people to reach crisis.