We’re surrounded by smiling, successful, talented people who are depressed

Mental illness is all too common, and all too concealable.
Mental illness is all too common, and all too concealable.
Image: Reuters/ Shannon Stapleton
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You don’t need to be told that mental illness is very, very common. There are statistics galore: One in five people in the US will experience mental illness this year. When considered over a lifetime, that figure rises to one in four people worldwide.

But it still doesn’t feel very normal. We’re surrounded by millions of people who look great, do brilliantly at work, and walk to the subway every day feeling totally trapped and isolated.

To help change this, my friend and former colleague Bryony Gordon has set up Mental Health Mates, a walking group in the UK for people with mental health issues. This fall, I’m setting up the organization’s first New York branch. We’ll meet at the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library by Prospect Park at 10:30am on the 25th of September. It’s not therapy, there won’t be professional advice, and those who come don’t have to talk about their problems—although of course they’re welcome to do so.

I love this group exactly because it isn’t formal or clinical. Professional treatment is an absolutely necessary and proper response to a mental illness diagnosis. Thankfully, the stigma has faded enough that most people now recognize that. But mental health doesn’t have to be a secret locked behind a doctor’s door. Indeed, Gordon’s second book, on her struggles with OCD, explores just how normal it is to be weird.

She says she started Mental Health Mates after hearing an old interview with the novelist Carson McCullers (who later died due to alcoholism) talking about how she felt like everyone was part of a “we” except for her. “I thought, ‘You were wrong, you were part of a we, you just didn’t know it,’” says Gordon.

Rationally, I understand that many people, including friends and colleagues, are quietly living and dealing with mental health issues. But during the two, thankfully brief, periods when I had depression, I forgot. I didn’t feel confident enough to talk about it until I was better. And yet when I did, nearly all of my friends told me that they too had experienced some period of mental illness.

Fostering this sense of a shared identity is important. The internet can be a useful tool, and there are many online support groups and forums for those looking to connect and talk. But this virtual openness hasn’t yet translated into openness in everyday life. Chris Barker is a professor of clinical psychology at University College London and a researcher who specializes in the benefits of both professional and non-professional psychological support. He notes that online support groups “can be very anonymous” and many members “feel a bit lost.”

In contrast, the social aspects of in-person relationships can provide real benefits. Seeing others with mental health issues creates a powerful sense of community. “There is de-stigmatization, there is empowerment, people feel less ashamed and embarrassed about their condition and feel stronger generally,” he says. “It normalizes their own problems to know other people feel similarly.”

The benefits of community support groups are not new, of course. It’s something that LGBT groups and racial minorities, for example, have worked hard to maintain. Though there hasn’t been formal research on whether those with mental illnesses would benefit from some kind of pride movement, Jennifer Ratcliff, a psychology professor at the College at Brockport, says she believes it would be valuable for many. “There’s a lot of evidence that disclosure of concealed stigmatized identities, of which I’d include mental illness, helps people,” Ratcliff, who has researched stigma, social perception, and the impact of pride on marginalized groups, explains. There are important psychological benefits to opening up about personal difficulties, she says. And discussing mental health issues within a group meet-up can then give members the confidence to talk about mental illness with other friends and colleagues, which can ultimately help reduce the stigma.

Since Mental Health Mates began in February, it has grown to include thousands of members and orchestrated meet-ups in London, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Southampton, Bristol, Cambridge, and Cardiff. There’s clearly a need for this community, and Gordon says starting the group “feels a bit like kicking at an open door.”

Too many people still associate mental illness with stereotypical depictions like ”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” she says. In fact, there is nothing abnormal about mental illness and those who live with it certainly don’t all look or act a certain way. “When you feel depressed you think you’re going to end up in a loony bin, or everyone else who has this is a complete freak,” says Gordon. “All mental illnesses lie to you. They make you feel crap, they tell you you’re the only one in the world feeling these things, that you’re worthless. And it’s just not true.”