When “Just Getting on With It” Is No Longer Enough

The beautiful city of Durham, scene of a recent "Time to Change" event

The beautiful city of Durham, scene of a recent “Time to Change” event

I’d like to say my proudest moment at an October “Time to Change” event in Durham was when I accidentally swore – twice, it was a bad accident -during a talk in a Methodist church. Oh, and in front of a vicar. And a room full of older people.

But it wasn’t.

I’ve challenged mental health stigma before: as part of the “Time to Change” campaign, in the course of my job as a mental health recovery worker, and, not least of all, as someone with a diagnosis of bipolar. But this 1 October event was the first time I did so as a guest speaker. Stupidly, it was the last place I expected to encounter such stigma … during the middle of my talk, too.

Despite that slip up (1), I am generally respectful of older people: it is, after all, a major ambition of mine to join their ranks. Of course, by some standards I already have: I’ve been eligible for “Saga” holidays for several years now, and steadily acquiring grey hairs for around 20. Sadly, most of the truly useful stuff – retirement; eligibility for a state pension, and the right to receive my increasingly elusive bus pass (2) – is a decade or more away.

As well as giving a talk, I also did a creative writing workshop. Like most such groups I’ve led or taken part in, it was good fun, and resulted in some interesting and diverse work. The chit chat before the day’s events actually started proved much harder work. I happened to sit at a table with someone who hadn’t been speaking to me for more than two minutes before asking: “Is bipolar a mental illness?”

Rather than respond with a remark about the Pope’s Catholicism, or the sleeping habits of bears, I simply said “Yes”. Then came what to me seemed an obvious question: “Why do you ask?”

It seemed my new acquaintance had a relative with bipolar: a relative who, I soon concluded, the speaker rather resented. My acquaintance had a difficult life, and became understandably depressed. Despite everything, they had just got on with it. Unlike, in their opinion, their relative, who had been in and out of hospital so often that the speaker told them they should “get their own room” there.

So why was I so surprised when, during the course of my talk, this person spoke up from the audience, and said that people experiencing mental health problems should “just get on with it”?

Sometimes, I agreed. But if that was always the case, why do we have so many psychiatric hospitals? Why do we have Community Psychiatric Nurses (CPNs), or psychiatrists, or psychologists?

If “just getting on with it” worked every time, would there even be such a thing as mental health stigma? Would there be any need for the likes of “Time to Change”?

Burying a problem doesn’t make it go away – certainly, not in my experience. Nor, apparently, does “just getting on with it” result in a serene old age.

For now, I think I’ll continue to seek help: whether through friends, mental health services, or both. Because I’d like the picture on my bus pass to be a happy one.

The main door to Durham Cathedral

The main door to Durham Cathedral

(1) ok, two slip ups
(2) I’m determined to have a pass, even if it ends up being issued to my urn.




About Sheila N

Enough about me. Art by Tom Brown.
This entry was posted in Bipolar, mental health, Time to Change and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to When “Just Getting on With It” Is No Longer Enough

  1. Nimue Brown says:

    People who have not been broken down such that they really, seriously can’t any more… are often a little too willing to attribute that to their own strength of character, and not to the fact that they just haven’t found their own breaking point yet. We can all be broken, and just because the circumstances aren’t obvious… but it is nigh on impossible to reason with someone who doesn’t have the imagination to picture the thing that could break them or the compassion to recognise when another human has run out of options.

    • sjn25 says:

      Having only met this person once, I really couldn’t say why they said what they did. I definitely agree that some people seem to lack the imagination to understand or empathise with other people’s reactions, and/or circumstances.

      I think “backstory” goes a long way to explain both our own individual breaking points, and why none of us can truly know, let alone understand, each other. Because only the individual themselves knows all their own backstory.

  2. Tina Stevens says:

    Certainly I (and many with mental health ‘issues’) have listened and tried to understand this type of thinking. Still run across it and imagine I always will. I could say I envy people with such ’emotional strength’ in some ways, in other ways, I feel bad for them, as they also seem to lack the ability to feel compassion. That is never a good thing in any human being, but lordy it is everywhere! That is why it is so important for organizations such as ‘Time to Change’ continue working to lessen stigma and promote understanding.

  3. sjn25 says:

    Totally agree about the importance of “Time to Change”, and its American counterpoint, “Bring Change 2 Mind” – see http://bringchange2mind.org/ What some fail to realise is that mental health stigma prevents some people from seeking the help they often quite desperately need. It also encourages us to “Keep Calm and Carry On” when we are anything but calm, and our ability to carry on is severely restricted.

    Stigma of any kind doesn’t just harm the individual: it blights the lives of family and friends, too.

    As for “emotional strength”, there’s all sorts of strength. One is to carry on living, and functioning – however badly at times – despite great emotional and/or mental distress.

    The old saying about walking a mile in another person’s moccasins comes to mind.

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