Originally published at Eye Eye World - Mental Health Awareness Charity
It’s a common narrative that mental illness is the invisible illness: the black dog in the room that doesn’t bark but growls menacingly in the corner. For those who don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. This is far from the truth; mental illness is ubiquitous.
In 2018, there were 6,507* suicides registered in the UK, equating to an average of 18 suicides per day in the country. Three-quarters of these registered deaths (4,903), were among men, which has been the case since the mid-1990s.
An estimated 141.4 million* working days were lost due to sickness or injury in the UK in 2018; the equivalent to 4.4 days per worker. The groups with the highest rates of sickness absence were women, older workers, those with long-term health conditions, people working part-time, and those working in organisations with 500 or more employees. The four most common reasons for sickness absence during 2018 were minor illnesses (including coughs and colds), musculoskeletal problems (including back pain and neck and upper limb problems), “other” conditions (including accidents, poisonings and diabetes), and mental health conditions (including stress, depression and anxiety).
To say that mental illness does not affect our general health is like saying a broken leg does not affect the body. Mental health and general health are categorically the same thing. Stress is not a quantifiable experience; what stresses one person might not affect another in the same way. In terms of assessing stress levels and physiological responses, we are unable to forecast how any one individual will respond.
One thing we can agree on is life is stressful. Whether you are a child or an adult today, you will experience stress in one form or another. Stress is a natural physical and mental response to our environment. Our central nervous system releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to signal to our body that we must prepare for imminent danger. Our body goes into emergency mode until the perceived threat is removed. If the stressor does not go away, then we remain with elevated stress hormones in our body, which is linked to chronic illness.
Although we live in modern times, our central nervous system is operated by our primal brain. Our primal or reptilian brain controls our automatic self-preserving behaviour patterns and is in charge of ensuring the survival of our species. Our primal drive for self-preservation is far greater than our ability to rationalise with our neomammalian brain. The neomammalian brain is responsible for our cognitive ability and sophisticated thought processes. Thus, we cognitively understand there is no real danger in being late for work other than possibly some stern words from our boss, but our primal brain triggers our body to respond as if our boss were a lion and we might possibly get eaten.
Understanding that our body is always working to protect us is the first step in accepting that we will all suffer, at some point or other and to varying degrees, with stress and ill-health. This is why it is imperative that mental and physical health come under the same wellbeing umbrella; we need to adopt a holistic approach to healthcare that treats mind, body and soul.
Modern life is not getting any more peaceful. We are no longer living in small, isolated communities. We have vast networks and resources; we can get almost anything we want at the click of a button. However, fast living has created fast neurological and physiological responses. Our bodies are experiencing burnout because we have not yet adapted to these living conditions. The question we need to be asking ourselves is not only how can we remove chronic stress from our lives but moreover, how do we help our bodies to adapt to chronic stress?
By admitting it is a real thing! Stress and its effects are not imaginary. No one would choose to be depressed or have anxiety. Anyone who has experienced either of these conditions will tell you it’s living hell. We need to change our narrative on mental health. There is nothing invisible about people withdrawing from their friends and loved ones or failing to appear at work. The signs are there, and we need to get better at reading them and more importantly, talking about them.
Unlike our ancestors, we have the means to support each other in a way that was historically not possible unless you lived together. We can create communities, both online and in real life, that support, nurture and aid our development as a species. Distance no longer keeps us apart. Communication is no longer limited to our culture or race. We can bridge the gap between mental and physical health by addressing our physical limitations and admitting that we actually need each other to survive.
*Office for National Statistics