No words can adequately express the sadness at news of the death of this great man. An enormous loss to the people of South Africa and to the world. A revolutionary, a political prisoner and later a President, he was someone who worked tirelessly to dismantle apartheid and end racial discrimination. Described by UN General secretary Ban Ki-Moon as ” a giant for justice and down to earth human inspiration” whose “selfless struggle for human dignity, equality and freedom” influenced many around the world (1).
His great strength along with his humility, his humanity and his enduring compassion will never be forgotten. Like many before him, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, his legacy as a champion who believed passionately in standing up for those who suffered and who never gave up, should be an inspiration to us all.
President Jacob Zuma spoke of his greatness and said, ” What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves. And in him, we saw so much of ourselves (3).
Great change has come about as a result of his legacy and while apartheid may have ended in South Africa and segregation is no longer a facet of American society, racism is still a problem around the world. According to chat show host Oprah Winfrey, generations have been “marinated” in racism and the only way for it to end is for generations of racists to die out (2).
Could the same be true of mental illness? There are many in our society equally “marinated” in bigotry and ignorance when it comes to mental ill health. The Mental Health Foundation (6) tells us that “society in general has stereotyped views about mental illness and how it affects people. Many people believe that people with mentally ill health are violent and dangerous, when in fact they are more at risk of being attacked or harming themselves than other people.”
Stigma and discrimination towards those with mental health problems can really impact on those in need of help. It can have a major impact on the condition itself, with many reluctant to come forward and seek treatment. Many delay getting help with the consequence that their condition worsens. According to Dr Drew Pinsky, Psychiatrist, the venomous effects of stigma lead to death for many who suffer from a mental illness (4) with suicide a sad reality.
In my experience many people are hesitant to seek treatment because of the implications of saying they are mentally unwell because of the shame and wrongly perceived notion that mental illness is a sign of weakness. Who can blame them? If you were completing a job application would you put down that you suffer with schizophrenia, bipolar illness, depression or drug addiction? In the workplace, despite improving economic conditions, it is still an employer’s market where they can select the “best” candidates and “weed out” the “weaker” applicants.
In the UK it was only in January this year that people with mental health problems were allowed to be (5) company directors, serve on juries or become MPs. This is an absurd reality. The Mental Health Foundation tells us that “people with mental health problems are amongst the least likely of any group with a long-term health condition or disability to find work, be in a steady, long-term relationship, live in decent housing and be socially included in mainstream society”(6).
What can we do about it? Well, take a leaf out of Nelson Mandela’s book and work tirelessly to end discrimination. We need to talk about mental illness and take every opportunity to speak out. It is important that we correct inflammatory portrayals where mental ill health is presumed to be linked to violence and where people with mental illness are betrayed as criminal or evil. We must correct inaccurate stereotyping where those with mental illness are regarded as very disabled and unable to live normal, fulfilled lives. We need to embrace those among us who need our help and support, stop using negative stigmatising words such as crazy, mad, retarded, loony, etc.
Furthermore, we need to consider whether there is a better alternative to “mental health centres,” which in themselves serve to reinforce the notion that mental illness is different to other kinds of illness. People with mental health problems should be accessing help within mainstream healthcare. We need to be bringing health education into schools and it should be an integral part of the curriculum, not simply a “bolt-on.” Teachers and others in a position to educate should be very familiar with mental health conditions and able break down misconceptions as well as identifying signs of mental ill health early on, so that young people can get the help they need…
I could go on, but will stop at this point. I suppose the most important message to get across is that we all need to care.
Until next time, Steve Clifford, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist.
1. “South Africa’s Nelson Mandela dies in Johannesburg,” BBC News, 6 December 2013. www.bbc.co.uk /news/world-Africa-25249520 [Accessed 06/12/13].
2. “World mourns Mandela, South Africa’s ‘Father,” 4News, 6 December 2013, www.channel4.com/news/Nelson-Mandela-dies-dead-madiba-south-Africa-president [Accessed 06/12/13].
3. “Oprah:Generations ‘marinated’ in racism will need to die out for discrimination to end across the world,” Mail Online, 6 December 2013, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2508646/Oprah-Winfrey-says-racist-generations-need-die-end-discrimination.html
4. “On Mental Illness: CNN’s Doctor Drew Reports on Stigma,” The Berkeley Daily Planet, 8 March 2013,www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2013-03-08/article/40844.9 [Accessed 06/12/13].
5. “Today the Lords approved the Mental Health Discrimination Bill,” Rosier. D. SLaM Twig:Operations, 18 January 2013.slamtwigops.wordpress.com/tag/rethink-mental-illness/ [Accessed 06/12/13].
6. “Stigma and Discrimination,” Mental Health A-Z, Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-a-z/S/stigma-discrimination/