Why role models are important to end mental health stigma

This week saw quite an important moment in politics. I’ll admit now – I believe most of what comes out of politicians’ mouths to be crap or lies. This week however, 2 MPs came forward and spoke honestly about their mental health problems.

Charles Walker admitted he has been living with OCD for 30years and Kevan Jones talked about his depression. Mr Jones also commented on the ‘difficult’ decision to open up. This reminds me of the stigma and difficult gay people face about ‘coming out’. Nowadays most people in the UK don’t see sexuality as an issue at all, whether someone is ‘straight’ or ‘gay’, and believe it’s ridiculous people are nervous about owning up to their feelings. I’m not saying everyone finds it easy and that there isn’t stigma left – there is (there are no ‘outed’ Premier League Footballers for example), but I do think progress has been made. There are now several, fairly high profile, public people to act as role models – Stephen Fry, Graham Norton, John Barrowman, Martina Navratilova, Neil Patrick Harris, Elton John, Sue Perkins, Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen Degeneres, Will Young, Jessie J. David Starky. Where’s my role model for OCD? (See here for a list of people with OCD – see how long it is). I know at least 10 people at work who are homosexual – I know no-one with a mental health issue, yet the statistic of 1-in4 makes the odds of several people falling into that category, very high. In today’s world I think it’s harder to come clean about your mental health than it is about your sexuality.

I believe people in the public eye are in a very powerful position in helping to end mental health stigma. They have access to a huge number of fans, the TV, radio, magazines, interviews – they have the opportunity and the means to get people to listen. That’s what we need. Usually you mention ‘mental health’ to someone and are then subjected to all the stereotypes and myths they’ve heard of with them thinking they know it all – or they clock out completely and stop listening. If someone famous and respected does it – people listen; they pay attention. Then they start to understand.

I wouldn’t say Charles Walker and Kevan Jones are role models for their day to day jobs but I think they are for speaking up about their mental health. I for one am not ‘brave’ enough to come clean, but if more people in the public eye did so, and it became a lot more accepted as part of life, I would be encouraged to.

Another good thing about Charles Walker’s admission is that it’s got my Mum and Dad talking to me about my OCD more. In fact they both eagerly and separately told me about what he’d done just in case I’d missed it – I think they wanted to show me it’s okay to talk about it, that it has made his life easier by opening up and that this might work for me. They’ve had to live with it with me for 10years and have been incredibly supportive. They have some understanding, but once they’d heard Mr Walker’s speech I think it hit home a bit more what it’s like, particularly my Dad. We had a 30minute car journey together the other day and were able to have a fairly frank and open discussion about what it feels like for me, what the anxiety levels are like and why I do the things I do. I also mentioned there was a great piece on OCD-UK‘s website about living with OCD and he said he’d be really interested to read it and he really wants to help me in whatever way he can. We have a good relationship anyway, but it was the admission by Charles Walker that gave him the opportunity to broach the subject with me. Sometimes it can be hard for either side to start talking about mental health issues. Sometimes we need someone else to give us the opportunity to start a conversation.

Have you managed to own up to your mental health issue? If so, how have you started the conversation?

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