It seems habitual for me to write about rugby in these blogs lately but why interfere with a winning (unless you read the stats) formula. So 2 weeks ago Prince Harry poked his head above the trench and spoke about some of the mental health problems that he has experienced in his life. What surprised me was some of the negativity that surrounded his sharing of his experiences. The issues that I came across most were
1 Why the hell are we talking about this millionaire who has been a bit sad when there are people with real problems who can’t get help?
2 It’s all very well for you, a privately educated millionaire to tell people to seek help that doesn’t exist. Go and live in a tower block and once you’ve queued on the phone for an hour to see your GP she can tell you about waiting lists, service gaps and a mindfulness leaflet
The issue with point 1 is that people regularly share their desperation, pain, and feelings of hopelessness on social media and the response they get is relatively muted. Some of their friends are interested. They might even get a like or retweet but in general, the world moves on. Two weeks ago someone talked about having some mental health problems and it was on every news program, every newspaper and social media exploded with people sharing thoughts about Harry’s story. Even those typing “But what about people with real problems” missed the irony that they were only typing that in that moment because of the choice that Harry had made.
Point 2 has a bit more substance to it. One of the benefits of private healthcare is that people will take your money and do what you want very quickly. Harry need only have thought “I think I need to talk to someone” and it probably happened the next day. So we can all agree that Harry’s experience of accessing help was different to the majority of other people’s. We might also agree that it’s as useful for Harry to extol the virtues of seeking help as it is for him to encourage people to drink more water during a drought. If there’s nothing around then there is no point asking for it.
Both of these miss the point of how helpful it was for Harry to speak out. (Here comes the rugby part)
I’ve played rugby for about 25 years now. During this time I’ve known men with piles who have poked them back in while we were showering, I’ve known men talk of the colour, volume and aroma of their ‘nether’ discharges, I have seen men compare and contrast the size of various ‘private’ rashes, bumps and blemishes. Not once, not once have I ever heard anyone talk about their mental health problems. That’s not to say that mental health isn’t discussed, but it belongs to another realm. A realm of nutters, loonies and those who are very different to us. We are ragingly, emphatically sane while those ‘others’ are broken, weak and flawed in some way.
So I’m suggesting here that mental health carries a greater stigma than sexually transmitted diseases. What Harry has done, and what I truly think everyone should be grateful for, is something that erodes some of the stigma surrounding mental health. “But what good does this do?” we cry, knowing that services struggle to cope with the business they have, let alone another 50 customers walking through the door next week. Well, let’s remember some statistics (and as I’m reading them I’m not terribly convinced, but here goes) in 2014 there were 4882 suicides in England. Of those 751 were current mental health patients. Even if those figures are way out we can see that the majority of people who come to the conclusion that death is the only way out do so without ever setting foot in a CMHT, my uncle included. I’m going to suggest that the majority of people who kill themselves carry a huge sense of shame. The weight of the burden they carry drags them down and due to society’s attitudes towards mental health problems it is better to die than it is to share that burden with someone else.
When I was a much younger man there was a period in life where I felt that I’d lost just about everything that was important, that the future was going to bring only more misery and that a potential solution to this dilemma was to go rock climbing (which I’d never done) up a massive cliff. During this period I had a best friend who I could talk to anything about and after I shared my ideas with him he helped me think up a few solutions and even got into the car with me to drive off and put them into action. Without having him in my life and without having the (courage? Foolishness? Vision?) to get what was in my head out of my mouth I could easily have become a statistic. What I’m saying is that talking about mental health problems isn’t necessarily seeing a therapist. It’s telling your friend, your partner, your boss that you’re struggling. It’s about voicing the thing that you know people will hate and despise you for and finding that they accept you. It’s about turning thoughts into words so that people can examine them with you, rather than having to carry them yourself with the certainty that every bleak thought and every hopeless prediction is 100% accurate.
But for people who need treatment there’s still no services!!!! That’s true but for me the thing that makes things change in the NHS is demand. Now that can be demand in the form of a queue of people out of the door or DEMAND as in people screaming that they are (literally ) as mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore. To go back to the genital urinary analogy from earlier, if the wise people in my town’s NHS decided to radically cut the funding of the GUM clinic the response would be…..muted. There would be no marching in the streets, there would be no celebrity endorsements of the campaign. No one would make too much of a fuss because it’s just too noxious a brush to be tarred by. The same is true to an extent of mental health. Hugely underfunded in both services and research this is largely because people don’t campaign about it to the same extent that they do for heart disease or cancer. Someone who dies of cancer ‘lost a battle’ someone who died by suicide ‘gave up or couldn’t take it any more’, as if mental health problems aren’t something that can affect anyone, just a thing that weak people choose.
Prince Harry is the highest profile ‘normal’ person to talk about his experience of loss and managing strong emotions that we call mental health problems. If he can have them and he’s normal, maybe other normal people can admit they struggle too. Maybe we can rethink our ideas about what normal might mean. If more people share that they struggle, maybe they won’t have to kill themselves. If more people go to their GP for help, if the queues for therapy get longer and if more normal people shout, write to their MPs, complain, and/or march in the streets then the government will have to listen. By saying it’s ok to talk about mental health problems, Harry showed that it was OK to have mental health problems and for that alone we should celebrate and recognise the good that he has done.
On the other hand I loathe the phrase ‘we all have mental health’…..