Naomi Osaka, Roland Garros Tennis Grand Slam, May 2021. Simone Biles, US gymnastics, Tokyo Olympics, July 2021. Adam Peaty, British swimming team, Tokyo Olympics, July 2021. Ben Stokes, English Cricket Team, July 2021.
Elite sports stars defined by excellence in their field. All publicly attacked in the media and trolled for taking a break due to mental health issues. Many famous figures from the sporting community defended their decision. Most people suffering from mental health issues do not have such support or defence.
What triggers such vicious rage and public attacks against the mentally vulnerable – from superstars to ordinary people?
Mental health continues to be a powerful, negative social stigma. It is seen as a sign of personal weakness or an excuse not to work. If the rest of us can ‘get on with life and stop complaining’, why can’t they? Society needs everyone to keep working and no excuse is tolerated. Except for physical illnesses such as cancer, brain tumours, a punctured lung, a broken leg. Here, we have a clue to angry reactions at mental health.
Mental health deals with the mind. There are many debates about what the mind is. But it has not been reduced to just a set of chemicals that can be fixed with a pill. In technical terms, it remains an ‘epiphenomenon’ – something that sits outside yet within the grey matter of our brains, the ‘ghost in the machine’. It is defined as ‘the way we perceive things’ – our perceptions of ourselves, others, and events.
The invisibility of the mind makes mental health issues easy prey for attack. The invisible, silent voices repeat inside the sufferer. They are heard and seen by no one else. They operate inside our heads, every second of our waking day and in our dreams when we sleep. There is no medical instrument that can scan or record the private conflicts that go on inside us. And because we all have a mind, nobody has the godlike power to know how many steps away we are from a mental breakdown. From the elite professional to the ordinary person.
Mental health sufferers have always been the object of social contempt, shut away from sight, kept invisible in lunatic asylums, and nowadays locked up in psychiatric institutions or medicated into silent suffering. Their voices are kept invisible and unheard. They enrage us when they pop up, uninvited, disruptive, and inconvenient. They remind us that our own invisible minds are too terrifying to look at.
Carl Jung insisted that it took immense moral courage to face the contents of our minds. It is to face our own abyss, our own private demons, our hidden rage, our secret terrors, and make some insightful sense and peace with them. Jung’s position illustrates the tremendous courage of public figures who shatter their reputations to make the suffering of the invisible mind visible. In doing so, they extend solidarity with millions of others who have no voice, no support, and no recognition of their pain.
We certainly need more public figures to speak out and break the social hate that targets mental health. Most of all, we need mental health professionals to address the huge poverty of understanding and information in the public domain. IN THESE TIMES is a platform for both of these.
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