Everything I write about here is personal – my worries about the future of the art form I love so much is about as heartfelt as it gets – but this post is something different, and I must apologise if it makes some of you uncomfortable. Actually no, scratch that: I make no apology. The whole point of this is hopefully to make some people less uncomfortable about an issue on which I have never spoken publicly.
Someone recently pointed out that whilst I talk often about my Dad, I rarely, if ever, mention my mother. My friends are careful never to mention her either, and it led me to the realisation that even those closest to me feel that she is too sensitive an issue to mention. Well, following the horrible Asda and Tesco Halloween costume controversy, it’s about time we all addressed the stigmatisation of those with mental ill health.
My mum suffered from mental health issues throughout my childhood and spent a good deal of time in and out of various institutions that tried to help her overcome her illness.
Now, I’ve seen a similar reaction to that information many times: when you tell people that a close family member has an illness such as cancer, people know how to react; comfort, succour and a whole range of support. When you tell them that a parent has a mental health problem people simply don’t know what to say. Even now amongst kind, intelligent people, this disease has the power to scare and shame. I’m not suggesting for a moment that all my wonderful friends have been in any way lacking, rather that to talk about this often induces a form of instant social paralysis. After a while I learnt that the easiest thing is simply not to talk about her in order to reduce the discomfort of those with whom I enjoy spending time. I find myself in a position where very few people, even close friends, have the slightest inkling about any of this, rather only a vague notion that she is not someone I like to talk about. That is a terrible failing on my part.
I want to state here that a mental illness is an illness like any other. Should you ever find yourself in the position of talking to a sufferer or to someone close to a sufferer, please treat it as a disease and look past the illness to the person underneath. More importantly, should you find that you yourself are suffering – even mildly – seek help. Medical science is coming to understand more than ever before about how the mind works and how to fix it when it goes wrong.
For my mum though, the treatments of the 20th century didn’t work. She took her own life just before I was about to leave for university, removing from the world one of the most kind-hearted, loving and sensitive people I have ever met.
Whilst I’m saddened and angered by what she did, I’ll never be ashamed of who she was.