Ayishat Akanbi: “We need a broader understanding of mental health issues”

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Ayishat Akanbi, cultural commentator and stylist, pens an essay for Jameela on why we need a greater understanding of all mental health issues – not just the ones we recognise.

Like many people, I have experienced the black fog of poor mental health.

While some symptoms, such as low self-esteem and tearful outbursts, can induce sympathy, other ways mental health disorders play themselves out are still treated with scorn.

It’s worth repeating that mental health symptoms affect people in different ways. It’s not always trouble getting out of bed and a preoccupation with negative thoughts. Depression and anxiety can also manifest as traits that are socially confronting. Someone in the thick of a mental health crisis may become flaky, irritable, selfish, misanthropic or prone to lashing out. These traits often aren’t met with understanding, but with judgment.  

In terms of public discussion, mental health has soared to the top of the agenda. We have come to accept that most people will suffer under the weight of psychological burdens at different points of their lives. And much like physical health, we need to make mental health less taboo. These efforts can be seen in the work of mental health charities, regular panel discussions, the advent of safe spaces and the online call to self-love as an antidote to trauma.

But for all our efforts to remove the shame from mental health, some of the symptoms are still stigmatised. It’s difficult to talk about your own mental health, but it can also be difficult to be the supportive friend or partner. Emotional labour describes the work we put in to making other people happy and safe – and it is work, even if we are pleased to undertake it. At the same time, the slogan ‘reach out’ remains highly retweetable.  

These are mixed signals. It’s hard to know if personal grievances will be welcomed or thought of as a burden – perhaps you should even pay your friends to listen to you? I tend not to reach out when I’m going through a difficult time. God forbid I’m hit with an invoice after an emotional outpouring.

It seems there is an acceptable way to be mentally ill and I don’t fulfil the brief. I find it easier to console myself with solitude, writing, reading and scouring the Holy Grail of Google for self-help. 

This method works for me, but it did lead me to think about how many people are paralysed by their own suffering because of their fear of being branded as toxic. We must be aware that many of the personality traits we dislike can fall under the umbrella of mental health disorders. Interrogating my own depression has forced me to wonder how people who suffer with less common diagnoses are stigmatised as being bad people. 

So many of us act as if personality disorders such as narcissism and psychopathy are beyond the mental health umbrella, but they’re as much a part of the family as anxiety, depression and PTSD. It seems strange to diminish people for genes and an upbringing far beyond their control. We have a responsibility to act with civility, consideration and accountability.

However, to say certain personality disorders are synonymous with evil intent is simplistic and furthering a stigma. By now, we should be able to recognise the potentially dangerous outcomes of repression induced by shame. The mental health discourse is flawed if we continue to demonise particular disorders and symptoms. Careful attention and the absence of self-righteousness will show us it can be our parents, spouses or children who could develop a personality disorder of this kind. 

I don’t deny that these people can be difficult and sometimes harmful to be around, but many of us would not reject them due to brain chemistry they have no control over. This understanding gives us the chance to overcome the urge to shame these people and brand them as toxic. With insight and a lack of judgment we can remedy issues at their root cause, instead of being misdirected by symptoms.

I understand why some people do not reach out in their darkest hours. Society spells out exactly what makes a good person. To those who are afraid of falling short of people’s moral standards, it might seem more attractive to disappear than get over the fear of reaching out and suffering criticism. Who would be confident to share a narcissistic personality or psychopathy diagnosis? I imagine very few people would.

This tells us something about the way we discuss mental health. It seems far too many people are only willing to understand what they experience. But symptoms we do not experience are also worthy of consideration.

We can’t only care about mental health issues because we have them. We should be attentive to how mental health issues affect those around us, and wider society, if we aim to strengthen our relationships with people and deepen our understanding.

As Dr Julia Shaw says in her book Making Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side, “When we label things evil, we stop the conversation where it should begin.”

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Photography: Sarah Brick

Images: Instagram

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