COVID-19 gave us an opportunity to speak frankly about mental health – and with the current cost-of-living crises exacerbating the ongoing disadvantage that can leave people at risk of ill mental health, changing social attitudes and tackling disadvantage is imperative to improve wellbeing, writes ANDY HAMILTON SJ.
This year we celebrate Mental Health Day, when we have moved out of the restrictions imposed by COVID-19. We still live, however, among the daily deaths associated with the virus, and face the economic hardships caused by higher prices and depressed wages. We still experience the same pressure on mental health as we did at the onset of COVID-19.
Today can be an occasion for gloom, or – as was the case in the early response to the pandemic – an opportunity to recognise the gifts we have and the importance of self-sacrifice for the good of the whole community. In that spirit we emphasise the gift that each human being is, and the blessing that is mental health. It is not to be taken for granted as an entitlement, but accepted and nurtured as a gift. In this vision we are deeply connected with one another and with the world around us. We care for and help one another in hard times. People who suffer from mental illness will find respect, support, and hopefully healing.
When suffering from mental illness ourselves or thinking about others who are afflicted, we can begin by telling ourselves and others how ill mental health should be handled. Though raising an important question, this is the wrong starting point. We should begin by recognising that mental illness certainly brings acute pain to anyone who suffers from it. It puts great pressures on the relationships that connect us to one another and to our world, and so leads us to withdraw from friends, family, social life and work. Our friends and families may also feel defeated and withdraw from us at a time when we need most support.
This is the stigma that can attach to mental illness. Because it so affects people’s lives and is so mysterious, others can fear and flee from it. They avoid talking about it with their friends who suffer from it. The result can be a deadly silence, as people feel blamed, ashamed and excluded.
One heartening feature of the arrival of COVID-19 was the open conversation about its likely effect on mental health, and about how we should prepare. In the media, experts urged us to care for ourselves and for one another. They also encouraged those at risk to seek professional help. People who suffered from mental illness were given space to speak about their conditions and how they responded to them. People were seen as persons, not as different. Their conditions were not seen as hopeless nor to be borne in silence. We could seek and find help.
In this time of COVID-19 and of economic storm, we have focused on the individual person and on the effect that crises can have on mental health. World Mental Health Day, however, calls us to pay attention also to the social factors that can contribute to mental illness. A child who grows up in a violent and impoverished home, and an unresourced environment, may be ostracised at school and unable to learn; have no access to home care, be unable to find work, live in an environment where drugs and alcohol are abused, and lack models of healthy personal relationships. They will be vulnerable also to anxiety, depression or other forms of mental illness.
Many of the young people whom we accompany at Jesuit Social Services suffer with mental illness. Many, too, have backgrounds of multiple disadvantage. Their resilience is a constant source of wonder and admiration to us.
To address mental illness both governments and we ourselves need to be involved. Governments need to address the disadvantage that contributes to it and to fund the programs that care for those who suffer from it. We in turn need to change from seeing people with mental illness as a problem to seeing them as a gift, and to support them when they seek the healing that they need. They are not marginal in our society. Nor should they be treated so. They are a gift which if, received, will bless society. They call on us to notice, listen to them, and to draw on our compassion. They are people like ourselves.