Unspeakable episodes

Although I have experienced little direct prejudice as a user of
mental health services, the stigma attached to mental health
problems means I do not feel comfortable with being open about my
illness. I suspect that this feeling is shared by many other users
of psychiatric services.

I am still surprised and upset to find the word “psycho” and other
offensive terminology casually used by the broadcast media and
press even though prejudicial language connected to gender,
disability and race has rightly become unacceptable. This erroneous
hijacking of psychiatric terminology, which is used out of context
in a misleading fashion, further confuses a public already unsure
of what mental health problems really entail.

Despite the fact that one in four of us are affected by mental
health problems every year, people with no experience or knowledge
of psychiatric illness tend to use crass humour to deal with the
subject. On such occasions I feel tempted to reveal my status as a
service user and correct common misconceptions, but don’t for fear
I will become the object of the joke.

I wish I could be brave enough to be consistently open and
confident enough not to worry about the reactions of others, but
mental health problems are sometimes still treated as something to
be embarrassed about or ashamed of.

My history of psychiatric illness is something I am often reluctant
to reveal. I still find that when I do share details of my past
with someone I have become close to, they initially cannot hide
their shock, perhaps even fear.

And if I choose to disclose that I have suffered from psychosis,
the word itself sets off a chain of negative connotations in the
minds of the usually misinformed listener. It is then up to me to
explain what psychotic symptoms really are – and just as
importantly, what they are not.

I have certainly never been very open in the workplace about my
illness. Work environments are often competitive, sometimes
hostile, places, where humour is used as a tool of solidarity.
While this unites some, it excludes and upsets others, and has
undoubtedly discouraged me from being open.

The anti-stigma campaigns by the Department of Health and the
Scottish Executive will, I hope, help people to realise that mental
health problems are commonplace and should not be treated as a

I hope the increasing presence in the media of declared users of
psychiatric services will help dispel illusions and stereotypes. My
own status as a media volunteer now gives me the opportunity to be
open in a public forum. I hope it encourages others to feel they
can do the same in any walk of life.

Helen Waddell is a writer, voluntary care worker and user
of psychiatric services.

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