Christmas is a time for families – so they tell us. What about those who have no families or who are estranged from their kids or parents or who have a mental illness? For them, I would guess that this time of year is about loneliness, not fun.
Nothing contributes to a sense of being alone in the world than seeing images of families ‘being together’ all around you. On TV, in magazines, in films, it’s all about families, dysfunctional or not, magically putting all their bitterness, regret, irritation, frustration and even hate to one side for that magical Christmas get-together. How I wish that was the truth. For millions of people at Christmas it’s the same as every other time of the year – they are alone and lonely, either because they are mentally ill, or because they have no family, or their family has disowned them.
It’s so sad to think that this is happening everywhere. In the current climate, where terrorism makes us all feel anxious about the future, people need to support each other as much as possible. My parents lived through the last war and I know from my own family history, they did everything they could in their community to come together at Christmas and as often as possible on other family holidays. They lived on a knife edge. A bomb could fall from the sky at any moment and kill them all. They knew the value of spending time with people they cared about, not necessarily family members or even people they liked that much. Because they were under so much threat, I think they were able to see the value of connecting with everyone.
It’s very worrying to hear that loneliness is such a huge problem in the UK. So many people see no-one over the holiday season. So spare a thought for the people who may not have a happy Christmas in your neighbourhood.
At this time of year, I think about the thousands who are living with someone suffering from a mental illness. It can be devastating at any time but at Christmas, when we are all expected to be jolly and happy, it can be particularly hard going for the carer. If the illness is misunderstood, other family members often stay away, influenced by how the media portray the illness.
Physical illness gets sympathy. Mental illness is still surrounded by stigma and fear. When someone is acting strangely and you do not know why, the media’s interpretation of madness springs to mind. Now the lines have become well and truly blurred – was the man wielding a knife and stabbing someone in the train station a terrorist or did he have a mental illness? Are the two synonymous? The so called ‘death’ cult of Daesh can so easily be defined as people who are mentally insane. Acts of pure wickedness can conveniently be defined as madness. That is wrong and adds to the fear of mental illness.
Mental illness is the fastest growing illness in the world. That says something about the way we live in the 21st century. Maybe we need a sea change in how people see these debilitating conditions, because if you live in a family where there is mental illness, the ripple effect is enormous.
In my training film drama, The Lost Child, I researched how children are affected by living in a family where there is parental mental illness. During my research, I learned that caring for someone who is mentally ill, without proper support, can have repercussions on family members. I am not talking about the hereditary aspect of a mental illness, but the social one. Often a parent with the first signs of a mental illness is hidden within the family, where the sense of stigma can be most acute. Or when help is sought, it is not given quickly enough or it is the wrong kind of help. Mental health service provision in this country is poor.
We have to acknowledge that mental illness is just that: illness. It needs research as well-funded as research for cancer and other major physical diseases. We must change the usual media representation of mental illness. The words that describe someone who is mentally ill are insulting and misleading. You would not be called a ‘nutter’ or a weirdo if you had a heart attack.
Another serious issue is that young people do not seek help soon enough when they are mentally ill. The stigma must have something to do with this. 10% of all teenagers and young people will suffer from some form of mental illness. Suicide rates in this age group are increasing, yet young people are not asking for help and young men are the least likely group to go to a mental health professional.
Living with a mental illness at this time of year means that you are unable to do what is expected of you. Depression makes you sad. It can make you irritable, non-communicative, isolated and tearful. These are not attributes associated with Christmas. The whole world is expected to be jolly. If you have depression, you cannot be jolly and those around you have to mute their expressions of happiness.
For children caught up in such an atmosphere, the memories of Christmas will not be comfortable ones. When your Dad isn’t talking and spends most of the day in bed, or when your Mum is crying all the time, how do you celebrate? When laughter and happiness is blaring out of the TV, when friends at school all have what you perceive as ‘normal’ parents, how does a child cope? Christmas day may be sad and silent with children spending most of their time in their rooms alone, to get away from the atmosphere the illness can create in a home. For children living through this, depressive illness might the outcome in their later lives.
The UK government recently asked us to complete a happiness survey. What will happen to the results? Can a government really change how a population feels about life? At this moment in time, with the threat of terrorist attacks, global warming becoming a reality, the financial crisis, families on the bread line, loss of jobs and the constant fear of debt and its implications on all of us, there is a lot to be sad about. Remember, the constant pressure on us to celebrate at Christmas is about economics, not love. The real message at this time of year – at any time of year, is to connect. Christmas has become about persuading us to spend more and more money. It’s a time when hypocrisy revels in our naivety.