Fear of mental illness as destructive and terminal is massively distorting

What would you think if every one in two parents were worried that, if their child came down with a cold, they might never marry or get a job?

Of course this is ridiculous. But a recent YouGov survey of over 2,000 adults found that 67% of parents would worry their child might never recover from a mental illness.

Half would worry their child may never meet a partner, have a job or have a family of their own if they had a mental health problem.

I’m not reducing the darkest, deepest depression to a winter ailment, but some mental health problems are short-term, do not require invasive treatment, and don’t reduce someone’s chances of living their life they way they want to.

Mental health is serious, and potentially devastating, but it’s also on a spectrum. Cataloguing all mental illness as debilitating destructive and terminal is massively distorting something that is prevalent, treatable and preventable.

There are countless studies showing that early intervention can help prevent mental illness, and early diagnosis can also help prognoses.

From a treatment perspective, the fear of parents is justified. Its no surprise that the same survey found that 97% of adults with lived experience of mental health problems said more should be done to tackle mental illness.

Mental health is severely underfunded. While mental ill-health contributes to 28% of overall disease burden in the UK, it only gets 13% of overall NHS budget.

The government has made a song and dance about its investment in child and adolescent mental health services, but has failed to ringfence this funding. Experts have expressed concern to me that local clinical commissioning groups - who receive this funding - can spend the funding elsewhere.

No one should be scared of mental illness

But underfunded services still do not mean every mental illness is a life sentence. The government needs to invest more in mental health - but we also have a responsibility to shift how we view mental illness.  And of the two we’re much more agile to change.

No one should be scared of mental illness. While our perception of it is changing culturally, when it comes to those closest to us we still have deep-seated misconceptions; a blanket fear of mental health.

We need to remember the prevalence of mental health problems in order to help normalise it. In any given year, 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem.

I’ve had a mental illness, and while it was something to warrant worry in hindsight, it also changed me for the better. I’m not advocating we all go out and catch one of these dreaded mental diseases – but there is a silver lining in some cases.

One of life’s many ironies is that the more we’re scared about a health problem, the more reluctant we might be to get it checked out. Otherwise, Embarrassing Bodies would not exist and we would be living in television utopia.

But we cannot run the risk of a child missing out on potentially life-saving treatment because a parent is too scared of finding out what the problem is and what this will mean for their future CV.

There is enough waiting in the system already to allow any further delays in a child’s recovery.

Earlier this month, the UK’s leading public health expert said parents should be given lessons on how to help prevent mental ill-health in their children. He said the quality of parent-child relationships and broader parenting was a big contributor to their mental wellbeing.

If an adult is fearful of mental health, children can detect this in subtle ways

While I agree this can affect children’s mental wellbeing, mental health isn’t unique in being the only outcome of poor parenting. We cannot fix the inter-generational problems of bad parenting as easily as we can say: stop demonising mental illness, and don’t be scared of it.

Growing up, I remember watching my mum run around screaming and waving her arms every time a wasp came within earshot. Now, I’m terrified of them because I learnt her fear. If an adult is fearful of mental health, children can detect this in subtle ways.

A child whose parents outwardly express anything but “business-as-usual” when it comes to mental health - even if it is just merely in passing conversation - may be more likely to hide signs of inner turmoil for fear of the perceived enormity of it.

What do we do when a child falls over and scratches his or her leg, or has a sore tummy? We outwardly reduce the problem, we belittle it in all of our communication to them, because we know fear - and showing it - is the enemy.

There have been massive efforts in recent years across the private, public and third sectors to reduce the stigma of mental health; and it’s working. But the anti-stigma effort is not just to lessen the suffering of those with mental health problems.

Seeing mental health with exactly the same judgement we have for physical health will benefit future generations, who will be more likely to talk about their problems and seek help.

Liberal Democrat MP Normal Lamb has been one of the most - if not the most - influential politicians for mental health.

His son was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) at the age of 15. Instead of shying away from he topic, Lamb went on to lead the biggest policy document on mental health there has ever been, leading the way for the transformation of mental health services, and he continues to talk about it.

Parents, feed your children sweets before bed, let them stay up to watch a horror film. I’m in no position to judge your parenting. But I am in a position to say that fearing mental illness in your child will not be conducive to their mental well-being.

Jessica Brown

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