Opinion: The Over-Simplification of Mental Health

By Olivia Pádraigín Ui Néill

we know it’s okay to talk

We are all aware of the Mental Health Crisis in Northern Ireland. Growing up I knew many people with mental health issues, including myself. As an adult I know even more. Sadly, the amount of people who have died by suicide in Northern Ireland has surpassed the death toll of the Troubles. In a time of #ItsOKNotToBeOk and #BeKind it can be easy to get lost in the idea that if everyone were just “a bit nicer” to each other that would fix everything. This concept comes from a good place, but it is a good neurotypical place, that over-simplifies and reduces the complexities of mental health problems.

I began to feel depressed when I was 13. I developed anxiety when I was 21. I self-harmed from I was 13 until I was 17, and again periodically while I was 21 and 22. I have never believed that it was not okay to speak out about my problems and I have rarely felt totally hopeless. In the times that I have, friends and services such as Lifeline have helped me out of it. That is why I feel exhausted every time I have it drummed into me by neurotypical people or worse, corporations trying to sell me a sheet mask, that it is okay to talk. I know it is okay to talk about how I’m feeling. I know there are people out there to listen. The problem with this sentiment is that when neurodivergent people speak, they are typically silenced by those around them. I have noticed that friends and family who do not struggle with mental health difficulties of their own find it extremely difficult to discuss the realities of even the most accepted of disorders. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to talk about problems if you have a more stigmatised disorder such as schizophrenia or psychosis. Neurotypical people spout this guff about talking, but when we speak out, a lot of the time, they don’t want to hear it. I have on multiple occasions said I was feeling depressed to friends and family and had it brushed off, ignored or even laughed away. We are talking. People just don’t want to listen. This then results in the bottling up of feelings because those few times you have tried to talk you were ignored anyway.

Other types of hashtag campaigns like the BeKind movement follow a similar suit. The tragedy that resulted in the BeKind campaign was that a celebrity who had amassed a huge amount of wealth and resources still believed the only option was suicide. No one should feel that way. 

This movement contributes to the idea that being a bit nicer will stop people committing suicide. It won’t. Being smiled at on the street won’t stop me from feeling depressed. I’m just going to feel really guilty after because I didn’t smile back in time. Being told I have nice hair on a Tuesday won’t make me feel less anxious. And whilst I do believe people have a responsibility to each other, the reality is that this “BeKind” sentiment is used to absolve people of fair and just criticism by others. An example is when a white woman is accused of “black-fishing” by people of colour who are rightfully tired of explaining why excessive tanning and using makeup and particular hairstyles in an attempt to appear racially ambiguous is wrong. The replies to these criticisms will be full of white people demanding that we consider the subject’s mental health, despite it not being relevant or appropriate. “BeKind” should not be a get out of jail free card that allows you to be offensive and demand that the people you are offending consider your mental health. The whole take comes across false, especially because a lot of the people I have seen use it will throw around casual racism, sexism, transphobia and general intolerance of others every day.

Finally, drugs. In Northern Ireland when an individual dies via intentional overdose, the comment sections of articles are filled with sentiments about how the drugs and drug dealers are exclusively to blame. This is another reductionist answer to why young people have mental health problems. This often passes the root of the issue to another separate individual, rather than addressing the fact that realistically, if someone is excessively engaging in drug use there is usually a reason coming from somewhere else that needs to be considered. 

I believe the aforementioned excuses that are used to explain away mental illness can often be associated with guilt. People do not want to believe that they missed the signs of mental illness. They do not want to believe that they watched or ignored a drug problem that is almost always the sign of something much bigger, at best a coping mechanism and at worst an addiction. The reality is that mental illness is caused by a whole mass of ingredients that come together to make a person the way they are. Physical factors such as genetics, a chemical imbalance in the brain or injuries in certain areas of the brain can contribute to mental illness. Environmental factors like changing school, divorce , grief, economic or social status as well as psychological factors stemming from abuse, neglect and inherited trauma can all explain why a person may suffer from a mental illness. These things cannot be fixed with a compliment or a meme about how you’ll miss a sunset in 20 years. They can be fixed by increased funding into mental health services, training of employees, managers and teachers, the inclusion of mental health education in school curriculum to include all illnesses, not just the “easy to understand” ones . They can be fixed not by talking alone, but listening when people are talking. By learning when to pass problems on to a professional and by the de-stigmatisation of medication and therapy.

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