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Last Updated: Monday, 3 January, 2005, 11:16 GMT
'Finding the key to battling stigma'
Scottish student Anna Murray is travelling to the Czech Republic to compare the experiences of young people suffering from mental health problems.

Ms Murray won the trip after writing about the taboo of mental illness and her own battle with severe depression.

Here is her award-winning article:

Young adulthood is an emotionally turbulent time for most people, particularly in today's modern world.

An individual's sense of self isn't fully developed and the stage of feeling comfortable with his or her own individuality has not yet been reached.

Anna Murray
Anna drew from her own experiences
While a young person's sensitivity and insecurity varies wildly from individual to individual, it's a fair assumption that young adulthood is probably the most impressionable and vulnerable life stage.

It's often during these years that mental health difficulties first surface, although they can easily be interpreted as 'normal' teenage tribulations.

A young person and those close to them may hope that the difficulties will disappear with maturation - only to realise that adolescence was disguising something more permanent and deep-seated.

The emotional struggles of young adulthood can generate poor mental health and can turn a naturally confusing life stage into a full-blown crisis.

Young people may already feel alienated from their family, their peers and society.

The struggle of adolescence

Poor mental well-being can strengthen these feelings and an individual may feel he or she is 'weird' and fear something is very wrong.

Having struggled with moderate depression between the ages of 16 and 20, I recall comparing my friends' carefree approach with my own inner heaviness and turmoil, and deeply feeling the resulting isolation.

Mental health image
Mental illness is sometimes called "the last taboo"
Positive mental health is fundamental for young adults.

This life stage is challenging enough without experiencing poor mental health and any experiences at this age are likely to impact on future well-being.

Mental well-being is often taken for granted.

This can intensify isolation in a young person who is struggling mentally and fears he or she is deviating from the 'norm'.

Increased social awareness of mental illness may cause people to be less bewildered if it does affect their life.

Modern society

Mental illness is more widely recognised now than in the past and perhaps more widespread - one in four people today will suffer mental illness at some point in their lives.

This could be partly due to modern lifestyles - society is increasingly superficial, materialistic and chaotic.

Young people especially may struggle in a culture where everyone looks out for 'number one' and social problems such as broken homes and drug and alcohol abuse are rising.

This social backdrop may aggravate feelings of isolation and low self-esteem at an age where young people are still finding themselves and searching for meaning in an apparently meaningless world.

This specific vulnerability means it's of principal importance that young people feel they are forearmed with the knowledge of resources available to both lower their chances of mental ill health and to get help quickly if needed.

An age-old stigma

Sadly, although considerable progress has been made, social stigma surrounding mental illness continues to thrive.

It's ironic that, unlike the Third World, we have the medical expertise and resources to treat mental illness, yet we are still hampered by stigma.

It's difficult to encourage many people - self-conscious young adults in particular - to openly ask for help for a condition that still has shame attached.

Many people I have spoken to have expressed their concerns.

Caroline*, an 18-year-old, suffers bipolar illness, a condition which causes the sufferer to experience manic and hallucinatory highs, alternated with severe and often suicidal lows.

See Me campaign poster
There Scottish Executive has run the See Me awareness drive
She told me: "I was afraid what my friends would think of me, that they'd think I was a nutter. Some of my closest friends know, but I still haven't told others."

Daniel*, 32, a severe depressive, feels similar.

He was unable to tell friends the true reason he was admitted to hospital, telling them he was suffering from ME.

Those with mental health problems often fear other people will adopt narrow-minded attitudes if they were to discover that the individual had a mental illness, rather than a physical one.

The sting of stigma can augment the pain in a person who is already suffering deep mental trauma.

Brendan*, aged 53, also a bipolar sufferer, remembers an incident when he was a psychiatric in-patient and was visiting a swimming pool with other hospital patients.

Their therapeutic visit was marred by a group of schoolchildren jeering at them and calling them "loonies".

The startling aspect was that the children recognised the patients from a recent school visit to the hospital's Occupational Therapy Department.

This demonstrates how hard it is to shake fixed stigmas - which have already been passed down to the younger generation.

Loaded terms

Part of the explanation for such enduring ignorance may be the stereotypes common to popular culture - the 'American Psycho' axe-wielding maniac, intent on terror and destruction.

While a few mentally ill people may turn violent, the majority only endanger themselves, or are of no danger whatsoever.

This disproportionate stereotype makes things harder for those with mental health problems.

Loaded terms like "loonie" or "psycho", even when used in jest, fuel the stigma.

There is a huge difference in the way that physical illness is viewed compared to mental illness.

Many would argue it's because a physical condition can be seen but a mental condition can't.

However, cancer is often unseen and yet has no stigma. The brain is a fragile organ, subject to operational difficulties.

Image of the brain
Mental problems are the victim of "ignorant attitudes"
Why must its malfunction awaken ignorant attitudes never attached to the malfunction of organs like the heart?

Interestingly, certain brain defects such as strokes do not harbour stigmas at all.

Many people with stereotypical views of the mentally ill would be surprised at the non-threatening demeanour of a typical group of mentally ill people.

A year ago, at the age of 20, I was admitted to a psychiatric ward after suffering a severe depressive breakdown - a terrifying experience accompanied by delusions and hallucinations, the result of never having had my enduring problems with moderate depression properly treated.

Towards the end of my two-month hospitalisation, my mum took me out for a day at the shops.

Realising no-one was giving me a second glance, I remember thinking that, if I were to tell these oblivious passers-by of my circumstances, I would refute the common stereotype of a mentally ill person.

Many of the world's greatest thinkers, scientists and artists have suffered from mental illnesses - Sir Winston Churchill and artist Vincent Van Gogh are two examples.

Dissolving the stigma

The 'see me' media campaign communicates the message that people who suffer mental ill health are real people with real feelings.

This in turn may encourage young people to not feel ashamed about having a mental illness.

Other attempts must be made to increase awareness and fight stigma.

I remember feeling pleased when visitors came to the ward - for every person who visited, that was one less person who was going to harbour false ideas about the mentally ill.

Some patients had an eating disorder, some suffered schizophrenia and others were battling alcoholism.

They all had one thing in common, however.

They were among the most sensitive, kind and special people I've met.

Natural illness

Mentally ill people have felt what it is to be human - their suffering and pain means they have lived, in the deepest sense of the word.

Young people must be encouraged to feel proud if they have battled a mental illness.

Many other people will learn from and admire the strength and maturity of such individuals, but the ultimate aim is for everyone to harbour a positive attitude.

The message that mental ill health is common and a natural illness should be taught in schools to reduce stigma and increase open-mindedness.

If it was made clear that each individual in time is likely to know of someone with a mental illness, this could decrease bigotry, while encouraging young people to not feel ashamed about admitting they need help - or being open about their experiences if they already have had mental health problems.

It would be a real eye-opener if mental health specialists and ex-patients were to give formal talks to young people - as they would then realise that these people are 'just like you and me'.

How easy would it be to identify in a busy street the one person in every four with mental illness?

A positive outcome

For young people having experienced mental health difficulties, the intense suffering can leave a positive gift behind - an enriched and more meaningful life, the ability to understand and help those who have also suffered and a determination to seize every opportunity in life.

I've become less judgemental of others, and strongly determined to fight the stigma of mental illness.

I now realise that if anyone has a problem with mental illness it's their problem, not mine - and that it's a pity they are limited by this ignorance.

A universally open-minded attitude is the key to battling stigma and this can hopefully be reached through persistent campaigning.

This will encourage young people to ask for help when needed and perhaps prevent mental illness from occurring, while encouraging those who do become ill to accept themselves and, eventually, to gain something positive from a difficult experience.

* The names of interviewees have been changed.

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