WHEN I was a boy, my mother warned me about the man who lived down the street. She told me he saw giant spiders in his house and I shouldn’t go near him.
He could often be seen sitting in the middle of his garden sobbing into his hands as he wailed and moaned. He would walk the streets at night talking loudly to the voices in his head.
My mother always crossed over the road when he was there and she never spoke to him. He would see me and try to smile and wave as I was dragged away. The poor man lived a solitary and isolated life.
I asked what was wrong with him and was told that he had seen bad things in the war and had never been right since he came back from France.
What today would have been diagnosed as PTSD was often called battle fatigue, and many who suffered were locked away and spoken about in hushed tones. Mental illness was seen as a shameful thing. Those who suffered from it were regarded as being suspect and some even classed as dangerous. They were often the subject of jokes.
While people with physical illnesses got sympathy, those with mental problems were often scorned.
What people didn’t realise is that one in four adults – and one in 10 children – suffer from mental health issues every year. It is something that affects us all and at some point, in our own lives we will know someone with mental health problems or experience them ourselves.
Sadly, there is still a stigma attached to being mentally unwell. Depression and anxiety can be seen as a weakness and those who suffer are regarded as being flawed in some way. It is a misheld belief that sufferers are more likely to be violent or dangerous to the public.
In fact, it is more probable that they will be the ones who will suffer violence. It is a situation not helped by the media, who often portray people with mental health issues as violent or criminal.
Thankfully, things are starting to change. As events like today’s World Mental Health Day raise awareness about the problems concerning depression, anxiety and other conditions, sufferers are being seen in a new and more understanding light.
The Equality Act of 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against people with mental health problems.
It was a much-needed piece of legislation that dissuaded employers from sacking people on the grounds of being mentally unwell.
Thousands of hours are lost each year through employees calling in sick due to stress. A recent survey found that only 33 per cent of employees were truthful about taking time off due to mental health problems.
The situation is changing with many employers now taking time to talk openly about mental issues without employees fearing losing their jobs. In many places, it is no longer seen as being weak to want to talk about how we are feeling.
As a police officer, I would regularly have to deal with death and violence in all its forms. The gruesome images would stay in my head for weeks after the event. After one horrendous incident, I chose to discuss it with my Sergeant. Rather than getting a sympathetic ear, I was told I was losing my bottle.
He then went on to breach my confidence and informed the rest of my colleagues all that I had said. I called it ‘John Wayne Syndrome’ – never tell anyone you are scared or admit to your feelings. We were just expected to tackle knifemen and pick up dead babies without wanting to talk about it afterwards.
How things have changed. Police forces now offer counselling to officers as a routine. It is not unusual for colleagues to look out for signs of stress in those working with them and give advice when needed. I think this has been helped by the recruitment of more women and openly gay people to the police, bringing with them a more open-minded approach to life and all its complexities.
I believe that life really is becoming more stressful with the increased intrusion of social media. The false expectations and pressures it presents add more and more stress. Life isn’t simple anymore.
The garden fence, where we would talk to our neighbour and unload the burdens of life, has disappeared to be replaced with a virtual world, where people are often made to feel lacking.
However, things are getting better for those who go through mental illness. The stigmas are being slowly eroded away. Anything that is done to promote awareness can only be a good thing. Even the TV soap Emmerdale is doing its bit to help promote awareness about those who have to endure psychological problems.
I look forward to the day when people with mental health illnesses are given even more respect and understanding and I do not feel that time is very far away. It is a shame that mental health services lag so far behind.
GP Taylor is an author and broadcaster. He lives in Whitby.