Mental Illness & Mental Health Issues Are Nothing To Be Ashamed Of - Alexia DeBono

Mental Illness & Mental Health Issues Are Nothing To Be Ashamed Of - Alexia DeBono

10 Aug 2021
We need to make a change to the attitude of mental health, both as individuals and as a collective, which must start by increasing awareness...
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It is no secret that in Malta, public discussion about mental health (like many other topics that concern the well-being and fair treatment of others and our environment) is left wanting. Whilst there has been a general improvement in the discussion, and there have been an increasing number of educational campaigns occurring by non-profits such as the Richmond Foundation and media houses such as FreeHour, this is only the start. There is still a sense of shame and insensitivity that surrounds the topic of mental health and mental illness, and they need to be addressed as root causes of mental health stigma.

One event displaying this problem in its entirety is the recent infamous exam question in this year’s Arabic O-Level exam which asks students to translate an act of suicide that was picked from a novel. It is important to note that not only did this question express the lack of sensitivity that is required when selecting an exam question for students (that may already be experiencing a tough time as we are still amid a pandemic), but the way that suicide was presented in this text is also problematic in itself.

In the passage, the man drinks the poison, falls asleep, and then wakes up feeling “happy”. The passage romanticizes the act of suicide and does not fully articulate the act’s finality, or even the causes that led to the act itself. The character chooses to end his life without addressing his mental illness; and after he wakes up “cured”, it’s as if his struggles have never occurred, assuming that this is not addressed by himself or his family after the fact.

So the question remains – why was his mental illness never addressed in the first place?

Over the past year, with the effects of COVID-19 and subsequent “pandemic fatigue”, many have struggled with their mental health. In this situation, one may say that it is understandable, right? A deadly virus had charged upon us, and millions of people worldwide lost their lives to it. Our normality was taken away from under our feet, and we had to live with the constant uncertainty, as well as the looming possibility of the death of our loved ones, and ourselves.

We understand the cause of our struggle in this scenario, and that some may have been more affected than others by these hardships – so why can’t we understand the effects of trauma from other experiences? Why is it still seen as shameful to admit that one is struggling with their mental health?

WHO estimated that about 120,000 people in Malta are experiencing a mental disorder. Mental illness is not only experienced by the unfortunate or struggling – it affects anyone, regardless of their exact circumstances, privileges, or age. There is no one cause, and there’s no one cure. There is also no A-B type of healing when it comes to mental illness, either – it ebbs and flows, it is cyclical.

Mental illness and struggles with one’s mental health are more common than we think, but ignorance, due to a lack of education and awareness, is the perfect breeding ground for prejudiced statements and actions to those who are genuinely in need of help and support from their loved ones. Mental illness also cannot be explained away as a result of biological factors or their genetic disposition to a certain mental disorder – to resort to using this as the reason why so many are living with a mental disorder on our island is a gross oversimplification.

As we’ve seen with our experiences of mental health during the world pandemic, it is not the case of nature vs. nurture, but a mix of both, and this is what we need to drive home when raising awareness about mental health and mental illness. We also cannot put mental illness under an umbrella, as not all experiences are the same.

That being said, we also need to remember that if we keep sweeping these issues under the rug, we will be stuck in a loop of insensitivity which will only make our endeavours to combat apathy, and provide an inclusive and holistic education of mental health and illness, worse.

All this ultimately leads to a lack of empathy, understanding, and compassion that will drive people apart and keep those who need help further away from getting it – and sadly, we can already see this happening today.

We are living in a country where xenophobia is prevalent, to the point where we choose to resort to hate speech instead of look at our own country and selves critically; where there is a continually rising cost of living, where many cannot afford necessities such as fresh food, clothes, and monthly bills, never mind purchasing and maintaining their own property; where the mental health of the public has not been prioritized by any administration; where policies relating to mental health are only seen on paper or shelved away, never to be seen again.

Lastly, we are living in a country where over 40% of people are experiencing a heightened sense of loneliness (according to a 2019 UoM survey, which one may argue is not helped by the hateful communities and individuals that resort to hate speech, trolling and cyberbullying – infringing on one’s sense of safety and community and their ability to communicate their feelings, passions, interests, or causes they believe in for fear of judgement, prejudice and psychological or physical violence.

I know from my own experience that struggling with mental health affects everything. It took me a long time to come to terms with what I was experiencing, as well the shame and guilt that came with it. Fortunately, I was able to get the information and services that I needed, and I am making it a point to surround myself with the right people. But I know that it is not the same for everyone.

Struggles like mine can be prevented, however, if we have the right tools.

We need to make a change to the attitude of mental health, both as individuals and as a collective, which must start by increasing awareness of the importance of mental health in all stages of a person’s life. We need education about the importance of mental health and the complexities of mental illness need to be given priority, with a focus on empathy, understanding, and lack of judgement. Furthermore, we need mental health services that are not only high quality, but have the accessibility and well-being of their patients in mind every step of the way.

There is no shame in struggling, and there is no shame in asking for help. Let us work together to make it easier to talk about our struggles more openly and honestly. The more we talk about it now, the easier it will be for others to speak up.

What do you think we need to change about the way we discuss mental health? And have you experienced similar stigma? I’d love to hear your thoughts! You can contact me at alexiadebono97@gmail.com. Let’s use our voices to help push for more open discussion, empathy and change.