The sound of silence – mental health, communication and the roots of social stigma

Rebecca Thomas 25 February 2013

Vincent Van Gogh died at the age of 37 from a gunshot wound to the chest. No gun was found. We will never know whether or not he shot himself, but history, unconcerned with trivial detail, has decided for us. Suffering from depression and anxiety, as well as fits of hallucination, Van Gogh has come to epitomise the image of the tragic artist shunned by society.

The history of depression is as long as the history of mankind. If you jump back a couple of thousand years it was identified as a serious issue by the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. It penetrated day-to-day conversation in the fourteenth-century and reached Britain for the first time in the pages of creative writers. It only shifted from the realm of the emotional to the scientific a few centuries later, first appearing in medical dictionaries in the 1860s.

There has, however, been a stigma attached to discussion of depression. It is not an illness that leaves physical traces, it is not easily understandable to those who don’t suffer from it and historically it has been treated as a taboo subject. Our bookshelves are filled with biographies of well-known figures, famous for their feats in politics, the arts and entertainment. Not so well-known are their struggles with depression. Former US President Abraham Lincoln, as well as English author Mary Shelley and former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, were all silent sufferers.

These days we are beginning to understand more about depression. This doesn’t mean that it is no longer a problem; quite the opposite. Studies undertaken by the NHS showed that 4.7 million people were reportedly suffering from depression during 2011-12, an increase of nearly half a million over the last three years.

Do these statistics tell us that we are failing to deal with depression? All evidence suggests that our society is becoming more willing to talk about mental health problems. The number of charities that deal specifically with mental health problems has increased, with organisations such as Mind working to increase awareness. We aren’t quite there yet, but are on the road to a greater understanding and a greater readiness to communicate. It is not something that we chat about on street corners, but the designated areas of discussion are growing.

There has been an increase in campaigning in Cambridge, specifically with Mental Health Week, organised by student-run organisation Mental Wealth, which aims to increase awareness of the issues surrounding mental health problems and to urge students to talk about their problems. I spoke to Toby McMaster, a first year Natural Scientist, who attended the opening ceremony at Jesus College. He commented that: “The atmosphere was great and it was a great way to raise awareness for an important cause. I definitely think it has meant people have been more involved, especially those who were at the night themselves.”

Sarah Glew, one of the first-year students running and organising Mental Wealth week, spoke to me about how “one in four people will suffer at some point during their lives”. She feels that the general aim of the project is to “promote mental health as something that needs looking after” but also to “improve access to services”. The general aim of the week is to improve communications regarding mental health, in order to make it something that people are willing to talk about.

With looming essay deadlines, catastrophic workloads and an inhuman amount of academic stress squeezed into eight-week terms, Cambridge would appear to be a breeding ground for depression. How geared up is the University to deal with mental health problems?

I questioned Chris Page, CUSU’s Welfare Officer, about the facilities in place at Cambridge, and how things can be improved: “Groups like Mental Wealth are doing a superb job raising awareness of, and aiming to destigmatise, mental health issues; however, there is much much more work to be done. I think there should be an onus on Colleges to help create safe and supportive environments for their students.”

Mental Health Week, therefore, is a step in that direction. Aiming to increase awareness of mental health issues amongst students through a series of talks, debates and activities, there is an effort to combat Week Five Blues and to show students that they shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. I spoke to a student who wished to remain anonymous about the events: “My friends helped me through my problems, but that was only after I pretended I was fine for a long time. I really wish I’d spoken about it sooner, and that’s why I think it’s so important that people start feeling that it’s the sort of thing that they can talk about.”

It is unlikely that we will ever truly be able to understand how the mind works. We will never know if Van Gogh’s painting style was really of someone appreciating his surroundings, or a sign of something deeper and darker. At least, almost two centuries later, we are now willing to talk about it.

Rebecca Thomas