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Mental Health Week

By June Venters QC

We have come a long way in society in recognising the many varied illnesses and conditions that affect our lives. However, we still have a long way to go. Mental Health is a part of that.

Raising awareness about mental health is so important. Just as with any other medical condition it comes it different shapes and sizes. Its causes are varied as are its symptoms. It is ageless, affecting young and old and its duration both short and long term.

Just as we have learned not to stigmatize and shun sufferers of Aids we need not to stigmatise and shun sufferers of mental ill health.

In years gone by we were cruel and uncaring to those who suffered from mental ill health mainly due to ignorance. In Victorian times and later as a society we removed sufferers of mental ill health by locking them away sometimes forever in asylums; in the first world war we shot sufferers of post traumatic stress disorder for cowardice and in the 1940s Hitler exterminated them. SHAME ON US for the failings of our ancestors.

As someone who has dedicated a career to helping the vulnerable my focus is now on learning how we, as a society can help those within our society who struggle on a daily basis to achieve what so many of us take for granted ' getting up in the morning; working for a living and participating in ordinary day to day activities ' all of which a sufferer of mental ill health often finds impossible to do.

Despite the positive changes our society is making we still wrongly judge those with mental health illness. Common phrases used to those suffering from mental health illness are:

'you don't look sick'
'everybody gets down sometimes'
'just pull yourself together'
'why can't you just get a job'
'it was a long time ago ' get over it'
'they are just attention seeking'
'they are just lazy'

I ask myself, would we say any of this to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, or who has broken a leg ' the simple answer is we wouldn't so why do we think differently when someone is suffering from a mental health illness?

Many mental health illnesses emanate from childhood trauma. Children who have suffered abuse beyond most average people's comprehension. Whilst most of us have experienced a loving, caring and nurturing upbringing, there are many children who haven't. They are children who often got what they didn't deserve and didn't get what they deserved.

Mental illness is indiscriminate. It doesn't confine itself to the unintelligent, the uneducated, the less rich in our society ' it crosses all classes and all cultures. Often the most intelligent are sufferers.

Just as sufferers of serious medical conditions often feel confused, angry, sad and frightened so do sufferers of mental illness ' our focus should be on supporting them. Letting them know we understand and care enough about them not to question them, not to judge them but to enable them to live the best life they possibly can. Sometimes just letting a sufferer know we are there for them is all that is needed.

Before we pass judgment on someone who is self-destructing, it is important to remember they are not usually trying to destroy themselves they are trying to destroy something inside them that doesn't belong.

As a society it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences.

I urge everyone to embrace mental health awareness week. Be determined to understand more about the many and varied forms of mental health illness and reach out to those who are suffering, often in silence. Your understanding, your tolerance and your kindness can really make a difference.