Sunday, November 22, 2009

The stigma of mental illness The suicides of a German footballer and two of my colleagues show how destructive is the stigma of psychiatric ill-health

Last week's suicide of the German goalkeeper Robert Enke revealed more than the terrible news of one man's death, the cruelty of depression and the pressures on sportsmen to protect the public's idealised view of them; it also exposed the ongoing shame and stigma of mental illness. For years he had been struggling with depression, kept secret from the public and his colleagues for fear of a vicious backlash that could, he apparently feared, raise questions about his capacity to care for his adopted baby girl and play for his nation.

Rather than risk this, and perhaps further despairing under the force of these private terrors, he chose the solution of death. That this seemed preferable to risking public awareness of his depression and the imagined consequences of personal shame, family destruction and exclusion from his nation's crucial sporting event, demonstrates something of the huge level of hatred that mental illness still evokes in the public imagination. The stigma only worsens the burden on those with mental health problems, typically reported as one in four of the adult population in the UK.

When people die by their own hand, a response of shocked disbelief, of the sense of an awful secret that has been starkly exposed, occurs all too often. How is it in this advanced age of emotional literacy, psychological self-help and media shrinks that the shame of depression and other mental illness causes people to desperately try to hide their problems rather than challenge society to accept that they, like so many others, are vulnerable?