Suzie Vestri: People experiencing mental ill-health should not be afraid to speak about their problems

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NO-ONE is immune from mental ill-health – it can affect any of us. Andrew Flintoff’s recent film for the BBC showed that elite sportsmen, who experience extreme highs in their lives, can also suffer from lows and experience mental ill-health.

The film explored how different sports professionals have experienced mental illness, how it affected their lives and why it is important to speak out to end the stigma and discrimination that continues to surround mental ill-health. Many athletes suffer in silence, fearing an unforgiving public and press.

Graham Dott, former snooker world champion, was frank about how his depression affected both his playing and his life outside competitive sport. Celtic manager Neil Lennon, who has also previously spoken out about his experience of depression, is now encouraging his footballers to speak out if they experience mental ill-health.

If successful, tough sportsmen can speak out about mental illness, why can’t the rest of us? The answer is that stigma and discrimination against people with mental ill-health still exists.

In a recent interview, Alastair Campbell urged politicians with mental ill-health to talk publicly about their conditions, after a survey before the last election found that one in five MPs had experienced depression but feared disclosing it.

My organisation, ‘see me’, recently spent several days inside the Scottish Parliament. We were heartened by how many MSPs came up to us to share their own experiences of mental ill-health, of caring for loved ones, family members and friends who were ill, or of being bereaved by suicide. All of this sharing was done when none of their colleagues was around, but I was moved by how much attitudes are beginning to change.

What about the rest of us? Again, the fear of other people’s reactions if we were to say we were “struggling” drives many of us to keep quiet. For many who suffer mental health problems, how those close to us deal with, or react to, our illness can be harder to deal with than the condition itself.

In 2003 ‘see me’ launched the ‘see me’ Pledge, encouraging businesses, organisations and public bodies to make a public commitment to unite under the umbrella of the national ‘see me’ campaign to tackle stigma and discrimination.

Every one of us who speaks out about having a mental health problem removes a stone from the wall of stigma and discrimination. Every one of us who then steps forward and offers support and understanding takes the weight of that stone away; enabling all of us to have a clearer view of a Scotland where people with mental ill-health receive the care and support they need, without judgment.

• Suzie Vestri is campaign director of ‘see me’, Scotland’s national campaign to end the stigma and discrimination of mental ill-health.