In my last post I touched on the 1 in 4 statistic, so often used when discussing mental health. Like most mickey-mouse statistics it is catchy and easily understood, it’s been used globally by the NHS, mental health charities, anti-stigma campaigns and the WHO to name but a few. This widespread use has entered the phase into mainstream discourse. What are the implications of this?
Its worth stating that there is no solid data behind the one in four statistic. I wont go into criticising the study the statistic is based on, for more details see here. The reality is there has never been a longitudinal study into any rates of mental illness or subjective states of suffering. The WHO attempted it, but the results came out as nearly 1 in 2. Regardless of the validity of any statistic we should not need to rely on catchy phrases to reduce stigma about mental illness.
1 in 4 attempts to “normalise” and reduce stigma by putting forward the idea that a quarter of us will suffer from a mental health problem, therefore as it is such a large proportion of the population it must be half-way acceptable mustn’t it? and actually 25% of us are not shouting at trees with tin foil hats on are we? Unfortunately this partitioning off of a quarter of the population just continues to generate and advance the very stigma that the statistic is trying to diminish.
1 in 4 puts forward that if a quarter of us suffer from mental illness, then mental illness is common and if mental illness is common then it is nothing to be ashamed of, but this just reinforces the view that if something is “abnormal” then it is shameful. If it was 1 in 40,000 it would still be unfair and immoral to discriminate.
We can see this discrimination occurring in response to rarer and less understood diagnoses. Most people will have experienced some sort of anxiety or felt down at points, talking about depression and anxiety is much more acceptable than disclosing schizophrenia or a personality disorder. I wonder whether shame is more apparent in people who have been diagnosed with more “severe and enduring” disorders.
1 in 4 also serves to downplay the terrible suffering that some people experience. 1 in 4 implies that it isn’t such a major deal, lots of people encounter it and get by just fine. This undermines the seriousness of the distress and pain people endure on a daily basis and the consequences of this. 800,000 to 1 million people die as a result of suicide every year. Lets have compassion for everyone that suffers and not just because it is “normal” or common.