4 in 4

people experience distress and express it in lots of different ways. We have a shared role as a society to better understand our emotions and how we can help ourselves and each other heal.

This awareness campaign challenges the idea that only

1 in 4 of us suffers from mental health issues. It highlights that we all experience distress and difficult emotions. Sometimes the way we express or try to cope with our distress can be worrying for us or for others, for example if we harm ourselves or if we hear upsetting voices.

Some people experience distress only occasionally whereas for others it can be significant, long-lasting and life-changing, meaning that we need ongoing support. 

People’s experiences of suffering and also of healing exist within the contexts and systems they’re in, i.e. their income, racism, their housing, schools, families, social media and our current society. We can get better at talking about what is happening in our environments and our society that causes people to feel distressed.

We can usually understand people’s distress by understanding what has happened or is happening to them, rather than what is wrong with their brain, or with them.

Calling  people "mentally ill" and looking to their brain for the cause of their problems is only one approach, and there are many problems with it. For example, it can be disempowering for people and encourage us to look to ‘experts’ or medication, rather than supporting each other with compassion and care to heal over time. 

Some people feel that the increasing rate of psychiatric medication prescription in capitalist societies arises partly from the idea that wellbeing can be bought, and that it is sometimes a quick-fix approach to deeply complex issues. 

By seeing  suffering as something that exists not just in individual brains but arises (and is eased) in the context of human relationships, self-blame can be shifted into self-compassion. This opens up possibilities for change, for example in the creation of nurturing environments. It allows the person to move away from “this problem exists in my brain forever” to “it’s understandable things are hard and my suffering is valid. I can learn new ways to feel this and perhaps ease it with the right support/systems around me.” 

It’s important to look at sources of distress within society, for example poverty, inequality, competitive school systems, racism, homophobia, transphobia and islamophobia. This is particularly important in our current political context.

We can also try to see our painful emotions as invitations to feel through our suffering, with support of others around us. This may be very difficult work, as we are not used to being with our own or each others' heightened expressions of distress. We can begin to practice a culture of interdependence by feeling through our suffering together, however it may show up.

#4in4 of us experience distress, but does the language of ‘mental illness’ translate across different understandings of emotional experiences? Perhaps the way we define “mental health” has been socially constructed and defined by western standards. The language of diagnosis has the potential to erase the harmful impact of social injustice on our emotional experiences. LGBTQIA+, people who experience racism, and disabled communities are particularly impacted by these experiences. 

People who experience racism are more likely to be diagnosed with 'mental health problems'. African Caribbean people in the UK are five times more likely to enter mental health services via the courts or police with a diagnosis of ‘schizophrenia’, and more likely to receive medication than talking therapies (@mentalhealthfoundation).

Diagnoses have been used as a tool of oppression for marginalised and racialised groups, for example the labelling of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. In the past, black people were labelled with a diagnosis ‘drapetomania’ for running away from plantations. The sudden rise of the schizophrenia diagnosis in the 60s is linked to the disproportionate labelling of black men active in the civil rights movement in Detroit. 

This should encourage us to be curious about the political, and potentially harmful uses of diagnosis. We can learn to use language that considers our different experiences, including the devastating impact of social injustice and structural trauma on our distress. #4in4 of us experience difficult emotions, and we can better understand and respond to these by looking at what has happened, and is happening to people.

© 2023 by EDDIE BAKER.