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It's not a competition: why we need to stop comparing mental and physical illnesses

htlcyhtlcy Member Posts: 133 Pioneering
edited July 2017 in Guest blogs

As an avid social media fan, I am always scouring my various platforms for something of interest. As a young disabled woman, I find myself drawn to discussions encompassing disability, and can’t help but join in with several of the latest hashtags or polls. One discussion, however, really struck a chord with me more than most.

Cartoon called 'helpful advice', where people who are unwell are being told that 'they're not even trying' and so on by the other person

Helpful Advice by Robot Hugs

Having had the displeasure of experiencing both physical illness – mainly in the form of cerebral palsy, but also other conditions - and mental illness simultaneously, one discussion piqued my interest more than usual. Thousands upon thousands of accounts were tweeting out phrases along the lines of ‘if physical illnesses were treated like mental illnesses’, usually accompanied by the above picture, and an anecdote to further reiterate the point. 

I found myself nodding along to some of these tweets, knowing full well that my own mental illnesses have often been belittled, despite rendering me housebound at worse, and a panicky, quivering mess at best. Some of the ‘helpful advice’ directed at me in relation to my mental illnesses include the following gems: ‘Cheer up! Some have it far worse’...’But everyone gets sad sometimes!’...’Why don’t you try *insert new-fangled exercise regime here*?’. And, much to my relief, I wasn’t the only person who’d had to deal with the above nonsense; many tweeters shared my disbelief, echoing my sentiments with their own anecdotes.

As I pondered upon my own experiences, recounting the numerous – though sometimes insidious – comments surrounding my mental illnesses, I began to notice that I’d heard some of these things before, albeit in a slightly differing context. Were my physical conditions really treated any better than my mental illnesses? Using the same thought processes as I had when I engaged in the twitter discussion, I began to recall the phrases I had been bombarded with regarding my physical conditions, and similar sentiments began to crop up:

"Some have it far worse; at least you can walk!"

"What do you mean you’re finding it difficult? Everybody struggles sometimes" 

"Why don't you try *insert new fangled exercise regime here* - It helped me when I had a sprained ankle,"

And there I was, only minutes ago, agreeing whole-heartedly that the treatment of mental illness is far worse in comparison to the treatment of physical illness. I suppose the ‘distinction’ between the treatment of mental and physical conditions wasn’t as clear cut as I originally thought.

Though I’ve had cerebral palsy since birth, and so consider myself somewhat an expert of my own condition and how it affects my body, I often receive unwelcome, and unasked for, advice pertaining to how I should best manage the cerebral palsy and related symptoms. I have hemiplegia, which affects the right side of my body, making mobility and motor skills difficult. It not only affects me physically, but can cause havoc in a myriad of hidden ways; causing sensory issues, emotional issues and more. 

Hidden symptoms aside, sometimes my obvious, overtly physical symptoms are pushed aside, belittled and guffawed at, bombarded with ‘cures’ and suggestions for a completely incurable condition.  Exercise, including new-fangled routines, is a favourite suggestion, and though no one can deny the benefits of exercise for bodies generally, exercise is not suddenly going to cure my brain injury, or magically straighten my severely curved spine, no matter how much I try.

Young woman with glasses - htlcy - smiling at camera

Having thought about the treatment of both my mental health conditions and my physical disabilities, I can safely conclude that neither are treated with the reverence and respect they, and I, deserve. When we consider that persons with chronic illness and disabilities are at a far higher risk of having mental illnesses, particularly depression, we must stop talking about mental illness and physical illness/disabilities as if they are completely separate, conflicting things. 

Whilst I understand that mental illness is surrounded by vast stigma, physical disability doesn’t have a good time of it, either. Just ask us: I’m sure the majority of disabled and chronically ill persons have been afflicted with ableist, disrespectful comments at one time or another. 

Disability is not a competition, no matter who or what it affects. Whether you’re someone suffering in the grip of depression, or someone unable to get out of bed because of pain, we need to realise that none of us have it peachy. In a world where millions of us struggle with mental illness, physical disabilities or even both, we must stop comparing them, and instead, come together in unity and with sensitivity and understanding for each other’s experiences. 

When all we want - and deserve in life - is complete inclusion and accessibility, we must work together to share our experiences however they’ve affected us, to raise much-needed awareness and understanding in what can often be a harsh, cruel world.

Disability and illness is not a competition; and it’s time we stopped treating them as such.

What do you think? Have you had comments about your impairment that people think are 'helpful'? Do you think the stigma around mental health is worse than around physical disability? Let us know.


  • Kathy_BramleyKathy_Bramley Member Posts: 133 Pioneering
    Things I don't like about the mental illness/physical illness comparisons are that it tends to be heavily weighted to particular models of illness and treatment that can block a more sensitive understanding of how both medical practice and ill health and the interpretation of society works, and create false expectations of treatment, they also tend to use and encourage guilt trip and shame and accusations that are inherently ableist in themselves. Learning disability, autism/expressive empathy difficulty/social skills difficulties, and least cuddly issues like borderline, other personality and mood disorders beyond moderate depression and the misunderstood group of symptoms that is psychosis are all evoked in frustration. Not to mention sensory impairments, lack of spoken language and walking difficulties. It's messy. P because it's so engrained. Who's hurting who, how/where, with what. Context is often key to the impacts.  It's not a competition, and the brighter tomorrow, well, we can't do it all at once. Two wrongs don't make a right necessarily, but sometimes they seem to. 
    Lucky unlucky
    Guess my diagnosis,
    It may help, but
    Don't guess my kids's
  • MarkmywordsMarkmywords Member Posts: 421 Pioneering
    I too think prejudice needs to be put in the contexts of human nature, ignorance and learned behaviour.

    Inherently, most statistically normal people do not want to dwell on illness or disability as it will lead to thoughts of their own mortality. It's what they do with these feelings that makes the difference.

    Severe illness and disability both terrifies and revolts people. This is so whether it be mental, with the fear of losing oneself, or physical, fearing one might be locked into a body that cannot respond like a fish in a tank.

    It is easier to deny mental illness/disability than physical and it will

    always be so. By rejecting another's helplessness to fate they are rejecting

    their own helplessness to fate. That is why mental problems are dismissed by statistically normal people.

    People say many things about mental illness but the essence of it is "pull yourself together and you will be well again." They say these things, as in the cartoons above, not for the other person but to convince themselves that if it was them they would not be a helpless victim of fate.
    It has always been so. Mens sana in corpore sano.

    It is so much more difficult to deny the potential for even the fittest person to instantly become physically disabled though. A single moment of "Look out for that bus," "What bus?" splat! Then a life is changed forever.

    Prejudice is driven by the darkest, most primitive parts of the psyche. Overcoming it is a battle that cannot be won but must be fought forever for things to improve.
  • ariesaries Member Posts: 44 Connected
    It's not ourselves making that comparison or prompting any competition it's the government, the DWP, it's the CAPITA asesors who are making comparisons and deeming invisible disabilities, well invisible. Considering them as not relevant .... Sadly we were lead to believe that this wasn't happening anymore .... It is happening everyday.
    Just to add I suffer with both physical and mental disabilities.
    Personaly it is DISCRIMINATION !
  • Kathy_BramleyKathy_Bramley Member Posts: 133 Pioneering
    Two contrasting posts (in terms of attitudes to medication/assumed models of mental illness, at least) which I both very much support in different ways.
    Lucky unlucky
    Guess my diagnosis,
    It may help, but
    Don't guess my kids's
  • NystagmiteNystagmite Member Posts: 609 Pioneering
    It's not just the whole physical v mental. I've also had the comment of how the reason why people with asthma don't get free prescriptions because if you stop thinking about it, you'll be ok. Ok, we'll just ignore being unable to walk the 100-200m to the GP surgery then. Bearing in mind I'm physically able to walk. Thankfully, that was short lived and I am ok if I avoid heat. 
  • Long_Ben_AveryLong_Ben_Avery Member Posts: 2 Listener
    edited May 2017
    I have both. They're both debilitating in their own peculiar ways. Peoples attitudes to the pain meds and my other medication are profound and very strange.
  • AnniAnni Member Posts: 17 Connected
    I get "But you're very mild" when I walk, and "Don't drink and drive", "No speeding, now" and "I hope you've got your licence" when I'm in my chair as attempts at starting a conversation. The worst example of comparison was from a social worker comparing me to my boyfriend who is a permanent wheelchair user: "Your needs don't matter, it's him we need to focus on"
  • NystagmiteNystagmite Member Posts: 609 Pioneering
    I've pretty much had a social worker turn around and tell me my needs are mild. Actually, she went one step further (as did someone else) and told me I don't have Autism. But how would they know? They weren't at the assessment with me.

    She refused to work with me (and labelled me awkward) because I don't like loud noise and need a bit of warning about appointments. Noise is physically painful.
  • Kathy_BramleyKathy_Bramley Member Posts: 133 Pioneering
    Sorry for my wordy responses. Didn't read back well this morning. And this was a cool blog!
    Don't really recommend spending whole day on Twitter but this just came up, RT from royal  college of psychiatrists:

    The term complex needs  immediately put me in mind of a full relationship between mental,, cognitive and physical  health  and difference.  And the gap between institutional care and managing with shallower underfunded, unsupported and ignored models of community care chimed in here with things I typed then deleted earlier and began or tied into a lot of thoughts! 
    It's the same neglected middle right across and with poor handling of the cross link/lack of easy separation. 
    The right depth of care, skills and answers is wholly important and wider simplicity and willing about real whole inclusion needed and more community wide strategies and not in such seperated, bitty, bodged complexity. Sometimes it seems like the "care" and "support" is way more complicated and you manage or get penalised. That's so wrong headed. 
    Lucky unlucky
    Guess my diagnosis,
    It may help, but
    Don't guess my kids's
  • Kathy_BramleyKathy_Bramley Member Posts: 133 Pioneering
    I do something similar like @htlcy

    See that I can apply in other ways some popular banner campaign that I had been swept up with, and then being left with a dilemma or awkward sense of being on my own with a new campaign of 1 person, just me, out on a limb. 

    But I admire the way the blog was written - it didn't carry a sense of being out on a limb it read more like an assured exposé. 
    Lucky unlucky
    Guess my diagnosis,
    It may help, but
    Don't guess my kids's
  • htlcyhtlcy Member Posts: 133 Pioneering
    Thanks for your response, @Kathy_Bramley . It sure is peculiar isnt it. thanks for that link, i'll have to go and check it out. Thanks for reading!
  • ZeezeeZeezee Member Posts: 80 Pioneering
    My daughter has quadriplegic cerebral palsy and cannot yet sit unaided let alone stand, she is 3 and is getting her first wheelchair in a few weeks which will give her so much freedom. I do all the therapy/standing frame/hydrotherapy, I even bought her an Upsee last week to try to do everything I can to ease her pain and get her on her feet to try and get her hips bedded in. I have had to accept recently that my fiery beautiful girl will probably never walk unaided, hence the manual wheelchair, I want her to experience life independently of me and find her own ways but the earache and detrimental comments I have received because people continually insist that she will walk "when she is ready" . Like she isn't ready now, she talks constantly about walking, she role plays that she can walk, it breaks my heart listening to her pretending that she walked to Tesco to buy milk. I have been told"she is just lazy". "she is spoilt" and used to me doing everything for her, like it's my fault, and my favourite and the most popular one is"children always surprise you and she will just start walking one day, you will see". I have come to realise though that is people say this rubbish because They are embarrassed and They don't want to accept the truth. It did used to get me really angry when people belittled the battle my daughter has every day just to play like other children and disregarded the permanent brain damage she has that cause her all her problems. But as long as I continue to work as hard as I can to try and get her walking and at the same time provide all the equipment and encouragement and help to make her independent and self-reliant using the abilities she has right now. Fighting ignorance is my fight right now my daughter can concentrate on being 3 for now xx
  • Kathy_BramleyKathy_Bramley Member Posts: 133 Pioneering
    Aw I hear you @Zeezee
    Lucky unlucky
    Guess my diagnosis,
    It may help, but
    Don't guess my kids's
  • Sam_AlumniSam_Alumni Scope alumni Posts: 7,731 Disability Gamechanger
    Hi @Zeezee how are you doing?
    Senior online community officer
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