As part of our ‘connections’ theme, Marie explores the importance of understanding our shared experience when it comes to mental and physical health conditions.
Lack of understanding around mental health is often highlighted using the analogy of acute physical ailments such as a broken leg or the flu. It can be a useful comparison – people don’t feel ashamed of seeking medical treatment for these as most of us do with psychological difficulties. However, when it comes to long term mental illness, there are many areas of shared experience with those who have chronic physical conditions. I believe that understanding and exploring the similarities within this wide spectrum of conditions, rather than polarising our experiences, can play a part in breaking down stigma and improving service provision. Here are five things which those of us with long term mental and physical conditions have in common:
1. We often hide our conditions due to stigma
The stigma around mental health and other long term conditions is hugely similar, often due to the fact that they are ‘unseen’. We often try to hide conditions because there are misconceptions about them. Ironically, because we are good at hiding them, when we do have to tell people they might disbelieve that ‘someone like us’ could possibly have a chronic illness. Whether physical or mental, people sometimes assume that it’s ‘all in our heads’ or that we are exaggerating.
2. We are constantly told that lifestyle changes and positive thinking will cure us
People often associate our conditions with having bad habits or a negative attitude. I know several people with conditions such as Arthritis or Depression who have been hurt by suggestions that we have somehow brought it upon ourselves. A healthy diet, sense of hope and physical activity can be good for everybody, regardless of their health status. This doesn’t mean that we still don’t need vital medical intervention.
3. The unpredictable nature of our conditions has a huge impact
If symptoms go away for a long period of time we sometimes neglect to manage our condition or even believe we no longer have the illness. Unfortunately, if our condition flares up again, we end up feeling down about not being able to see people, having to give up commitments and being in pain again. It can feel like going back to square one.
4. Misdiagnoses and long waiting times are common
Unseen conditions can be harder to pinpoint, so are often misdiagnosed or go undetected. This can result in the wrong treatment or no treatment at all. With many conditions, for example Bipolar Disorder or bowel diseases, this can cause prolonged periods of difficult symptoms or even put us at risk.
5. We have a lot to offer in the workplace
Part of the stigma around long term conditions relates to concerns that we will always be absent or won’t be productive. Sometimes we might need time off – so do lots of people for lots of reasons. However, the fact that we manage our health on top of everything else is actually a sign of competency. Due to our experiences we are also very likely to have a great deal of empathy for our colleagues which can contribute to a positive environment – we are often the ones to ask if someone is ok and help if they are struggling.