By Alex Wright (Editor)
People with mental health problems and their allies have come a long way in addressing the stigma associated with having a mental disorder. We have the likes of Movember, R U Ok, Mental Health Awareness Week, and World Mental Health Day, which seek to drive forward this agenda, and hundreds of other initiatives dedicated to particular conditions or mental health more broadly. In an undergraduate class I’m tutoring, we recently discussed the definition of health, and one of the first suggestions from the class emphasized that health encompasses not only physical health, but also mental and emotional wellbeing.
And then something happens that makes you realise how far we still have to go.
I’m currently sitting on the bus, actually drafting a blog on knowledge exchange during PhD research (which now lies unfinished). A woman got on the bus a few minutes ago and displayed behaviours that one might perceive to be outside the ‘normal’ spectrum of ‘bus behaviours’ in Britain. She spoke to people without invitation, in a loud voice, often repeating her questions. She offered personal information of her own, unprompted. She did, however, stay in her seat, and did not badger anyone or physically approach them. The bus was not very busy, and no one seemed particularly perturbed.
When the time came for her to leave, she walked to the front of the bus and spoke with the driver. Again, she used a loud voice and repeated her questions. The bus driver quietly and consistently answered these questions.
The entire exchange was not been distressing to me. What was distressing, and - the reason I’m now ignoring my knowledge exchange blog in favour of scribbling about this - was looking up to find that the man in front of me had surreptitiously raised his phone and was video recording this woman as she spoke with the driver.
[The woman has now left, and he’s put down his phone.]
Why was he filming? Two thoughts immediately come to mind. First, perhaps he felt that the woman’s behaviour was far enough outside of what he considered ‘normal’ that he believed the driver may be threatened and wanted to record the exchange as some form of civic engagement. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he is recording out of some sense of goodwill. My second thought, however, was that he was recording for his own purposes. What purposes? To me, it seems any purpose that requires a furtive video recording of a non-consenting person cannot be good, and may even be nefarious.
A problem with these scenarios, even if we try to humanize this man by reference to the first one, is that they both place the woman in the position that her unique differences have been judged such that she is now considered either a threat to others, or a person who is not entitled to be asked for consent before being recorded. In other words, a person whose differences mean she does not matter enough to be respected, and is now fair game for derision or humiliation.
[His phone rings, he answers]
“…she’s like WHAAAATTT? And then she just keeps going on and on and on [laughing]. Aye, she was trying to get another bus after…”
So it was sickening scenario number two. This man has sent the video to a buddy, and is now imitating the woman and laughing. Because she was different. She talked too loud, and wondered what the bus driver was doing that night, twice.
Now I’m staring at the back of the bus man’s head wondering why I didn’t tap him on the shoulder when I saw the phone and ask him why he was recording? Why did I simply keep writing, impotently, on my notepad, avoiding confrontation but also ducking an opportunity for change?
[I leave the bus, the man does not]
Now I’m off the bus, having hoped he would get off at the same stop, and I could approach him in a more open space. Alas, he stayed put and went on with his day. Now I’m not sure if I’m more furious with myself or society.
We know that nearly 30% of people globally will suffer from a common mental disorder at some point in their lifetime (1), a number that may in fact be vastly underestimated (2). We know that mental health problems themselves don’t discriminate, but also that often women and those who have traumatic experiences or vulnerabilities may be more likely to experience mental health problems (3). We know that public campaigning and the enormous efforts of mental health advocates have made huge strides in bringing topics like depression and anxiety out into the open and combating the stigma that surrounds mental disorder. A quick Google search will show you list after list of news stories about celebrities who’ve spoken about experiencing depression, and which are given headlines like ‘inspiring’. Personal idols like Springsteen have talked about their own mental health battles with the ‘black dog’ (a phrase coined by Churchill and utilised creatively in this very good video). But it seems that quiet, invisible mental health problems are still more ‘palatable’ than behaviours that make you shout on a bus.
Author Philip K. Dick wrote:
“Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans… If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe it’s as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say, His reality is so different from ours that he can’t explain his to us, and we can’t explain ours to him. The problem, then, is that if subjective worlds are experienced too differently, there occurs a breakdown in communication…and there is the real illness.”
Will I say something next time? Yes, I want to commit to that here. Because even if it’s not ‘British’ behaviour (the criteria for which I’m still trying to figure out) to start a confrontation on the bus on a Monday morning, some things have really got to change.
**Scotland and the UK more widely have a number of mental health charities. In Scotland, ‘See Me’ is dedicated to tackling mental health stigma and discrimination. For more information, see https://www.seemescotland.org/. In England, see Time to Change.
- Steel, Z., Marnane, C., Iranpour, C., Chey, T., Jackson, J., Patel, V., Silove, D. (2014). The global prevalence of common mental disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis 1980-2013. International Journal of Epidemiology, 43(2), 476-493. Doi: 10.1093/ije/dyu038
- Vigo, D., Thornicroft, G., Atun, R. (2016). Estimating the true global burden of mental illness. The Lancet Psychiatry, 3(2), 171-178. Doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00505-2
- WHO. (2013). Global mental health action plan: 2013-2020. Geneva: World Health Organization. Available at: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/89966/1/9789241506021_eng.pdf?ua=1