Not a Token

Content note: talking about depression, suicide and other such fun things - no gruesome details but if it upsets you then don't read this

I don't know how to talk about this, but I feel like I have to talk about it: mentally ill people are caught in a shitty situation.

The most immediately identifiable problem is the environment. Despite many, many shiny campaigns over the years, mental illness is still stigmatised; the people actually reached by the campaigns aren't necessarily the people who enforce that stigma. Families, who should be supportive, often...well, aren't.

This is compounded by lack of access to information. I'm not sure what it's like in other countries, but when I was growing up in the UK very little information about mental illness was provided to young people. It took me three years and two suicide attempts to realise that I might have to go to a doctor about this. (Yes. Really.)

The combination of stigma and not being provided with information is absolutely terrible on its own (but there are other factors - more on that later). I'm not very good at trying to describe it in an abstract way, so I'm going to tug at your heartstrings by telling an anecdote.

When I was thirteen, I became suicidal. I told my mother and she said I was attention-seeking. Because of this, I internalised the idea that I actually was looking for attention by telling people that there was something wrong with me. I forced it down into the depths of my mind. I was aware that I was unhappy, of course - that I was so unhappy I could barely feel any positive emotion - but I thought that it was normal. I had a great deal of cognitive dissonance; something felt terribly wrong inside my head, but I was trying to convince myself that I was supposed to feel this way. Doing this for several years hurt my mind in bad ways. I am fairly sure that most mentally ill people have similar stories.

For the sake of not cynically tugging your heartstrings any more, dear reader, let's assume that someone has enough information to know that they're mentally ill and that they've been advised to see a doctor. They're on the way to recovery now, right?

Haha! I wish, and so do plenty of other people.

Well, healthcare isn't necessarily free. Some people can't afford health insurance or a doctor's appointment. But let's say that healthcare is free (or at least affordable), for the sake of argument; it might be physically difficult to access that healthcare. When you see a GP, accessing care is still difficult; there's a game you have to play where you have to be mentally ill enough that they'll give you treatment, but not so ill that they section you. This happens regardless of your symptoms. Most people don't realise there's a performative element to trying to get treatment until they realise that they're not going to get the care they need because the doctors think they're too normal. This links into how healthcare services are basically always overstretched; some regions in the country are much better funded than others, so you might only have to wait a week to see a therapist in a big university hospital complex, whilst in a small town you might wait almost two years. I appreciate that doctors do their best; mostly I blame funding problems.

Let's say you manage to get an appointment and the doctor is reasonably sympathetic. You will probably be sent away with medication. Medication in itself is not bad, but handing someone a prescription and a recommendation to buy self-help books isn't always effective. Adverse side-effects and dependency are real issues, and I would really appreciate it if talking treatments were more widely available. (I know it's a stereotype that everyone in the US is on medication and seeing a shrink; here neither are particularly easy to get hold of.) You will also be on the receiving end of drug companies' exceedingly unethical behaviour when trying to make their particular product seem most effective. This is true even without being directly marketed to.

To recap this list of complaints: stigma and ignorance are prevalent, getting help requires a lot of negotiation, and pharma companies are shit.

Apparently this isn't enough; people have to continue being terrible. They are probably sincere about it, but they are still terrible.

It is a truth widely acknowledged that drug companies do a lot of terrible things and have put some really harmful things on the market. Working for one of them can pretty much ruin your reputation as a decent person.

Unfortunately, a lot of their medication also works. In many cases, medication helps people to survive and thrive, but this isn't important to people trying to make a quick buck or draw traffic by scaremongering about how evil Big Pharma is. Not even organisations trying to prevent suicide are safe; the implication is that trying to inform people is drawing them into the pharmaceutical machine.

I'm not going to deny that drug companies do extremely bad things. I'm not going to deny that non-profits often have structural problems. But I find it disgusting that some journalist who doesn't know shit about mental health treatment, or statistics, or correlation and causation, or donor lists, or fucking anything other than scaremongering, would try to discredit desperately needed work. I find it disgusting that they would throw people who find medication works for them under the bus, because "it's fine, Big Pharma's evil anyway and I need the money and views". These journalists may very well have good intentions - and I am being generous here - but they are reinforcing the stigma of taking medication. What they are doing is harmful. And it hurts, because some of the people these journalists are throwing under the proverbial bus are my friends, wonderful people who deserve better than ableist nonsense. It hurts because maybe one day one of those people might be me.

Life with a mental illness is hard enough as it is, with many barriers to living fully and well. Stop using mentally ill people as tokens, or just flat out disregarding us. Big Pharma hurts us too, and we don't need anti-scientific crap from people who want to use our struggles to push their own agendas.