Rev Dr Russell Barr: We must remove the stigma surrounding mental illness

Hibs manager Neil Lennon has spoken openly about his struggle with depression. Picture: Neil Hanna
Hibs manager Neil Lennon has spoken openly about his struggle with depression. Picture: Neil Hanna
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While Scotland has basked in the tennis success enjoyed by Andy Murray and his brother Jamie, you might be surprised to learn tennis is the most recent activity offered to people in The Elms.

The Elms is one of the Church of Scotland’s residential homes in the Grange area of Edinburgh and it specialises in the care of people suffering from dementia.

As a young woman one of the elderly residents had played tennis competitively including a number of visits to Wimbledon.

Now frail and very forgetful, the staff watched in amazement as she took a tennis racquet in her hands and suddenly the years and the dementia peeled away as she remembered her passion for the game and announced: ‘I’m a tennis player you know.’

Typically, dementia is a mental illness experienced by older people but people of every age can experience mental illness.

When I was a part-time chaplain at a psychiatric unit in the east end of Glasgow, there was a wall poster featuring a mother and her children.

It was a picture of health and normality, a mum standing at a zebra crossing, baby in the buggy, toddler holding her hand, shopping bags over the handle of the buggy and a supermarket in the background.

Above the picture the caption read: “When the baby was born I suffered from post-natal depression.” While underneath the picture were these words: “My friends have never recovered.”

Although one in four of us will experience mental ill-health at some point in our lives, sadly the experience of the young woman in the poster is all too common and for a variety of reasons too many people today still do not receive the support they require. Stigma is one reason because while there is sympathy for someone who has suffered a heart attack, or needed a hip replaced, people who have suffered from anxiety or depression often experience a different response.

The See Me campaign supported by the Scottish Government reports that nine out of ten people who experience mental health problems have faced prejudice and discrimination.

Sadly the report also suggests in the workplace people hide mental illness over fear for their job.

Such stigma is not just unfair, it is also dangerous because it means people are less likely to be completely open and seek appropriate help, the result being recovering from mental ill-health becomes more difficult.

Some time ago the Hibs manager, Neil Lennon, spoke about his struggle with depression and speaking openly is exactly what is needed to end the stigma attached to mental health. Sharing personal experience about our own mental health is one of the keys to overcoming the stigma, breaking down the barriers, and gaining a much better knowledge of the variety of mental health problems that can arise and the treatment and support which is already available.

The Church of Scotland supports people dealing with mental health issues each and every day of the year.

Often this support is offered through the pastoral work of my colleagues working in congregations all over Scotland or as hospital, prison and army chaplains.

Support is also provided by churches offering clubs and cafes for people living with dementia and by the Church of Scotland’s social care charity, Crossreach.

As Moderator I am visiting many of Crossreach’s services this week learning more of the great work they do.

I am also encouraging people to join the conversation about mental health.

If we all get involved – sharing our experiences, and listening to the experiences of others – we will radically change the way mental health is perceived in our society.

We will learn that mental ill-health can affect anyone at any age, it should not be hidden away, and with the right support it can usually be treated and cured.

And we will also discover that if and when we take ill, our friends will recover too.

Rev Dr Russell Barr is Moderator of the Church of Scotland