When it's not just resilience: A response to Piers Morgan

During Mental Health Awareness Week, how sad, but unsurprising, to see Piers Morgan, blasting it all as “crap” and telling grievers, among others, to effectively “man-up”. There is a video in the link below, but only click it if you really feel you need to - I have watched it several times for you.

He starts with a startling statistic, designed to get your attention. “I read a report last year”, he booms, “saying 33 million people in the UK… identify as mentally ill… They’re not, it’s crap!”

Well he’s right, it is crap. Or at least, after a couple of hours googling I can’t find a report with anything like that statistic! That would be over half the population of the UK. The source of this data is not cited. Which report, who wrote it, is it evidenced? Or peer reviewed? Perhaps Piers could post the link?

MIND (the UK mental health charity) have published some statistics. Here is a link: How common are mental health problems? - Mind. They suggest that based on 2020 figures:

  • 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England 

  • 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England

(The maths bit: The current population of England is around 55 million, and the UK is around 68 million. (source: ONS). On that basis, 1 in 4 of the UK (of just England would be smaller) is 17 million, and 1 in 6 is 11 million. And that’s assuming that 1 in 4 includes people of all ages whereas the research was looking at people over 16. So where has 33 million come from? Please let me know if you can find it).

It doesn’t matter when you are trying to get attention. Who cares if the news is true - if it’s not bad enough that up to 17 million people are experiencing mental health problems in the UK, if we make it 33 million then it’s obvious that some of them are lying, right? Imagine being that desperate for attention!

So we start with a ridiculous number and then we follow it with a denial of experience. He didn’t say that 33 million people are mentally ill, or are experiencing mental health problems. He said they identify as mentally ill.

Have you ever heard somebody describe themselves as “identifying with” an illness? My husband never said he identified as having cancer. He just had cancer. But then there are some people with illnesses that don’t get a formal diagnosis. If I injure my leg, I need a doctor (and possibly an x-ray) to tell me whether it is a break or a sprain, or it could just be badly bruised. But if I thought I would probably be ok if I rested it for a day or two I probably wouldn’t bother with a doctor. I could self diagnose that I had an injured leg and leave it at that. If I felt that it was stopping me from carrying out my usual activities and having a detrimental effect on my life or my loved ones I would go and see a doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment. But it has nothing to do with identity. I wouldn’t go around saying "I identified" as having an injured leg.

Similarly, when my mental health is poor I have some self care strategies, but I also know when to go and see a doctor or contact a counsellor because it needs something more. I don’t “identify” as mentally ill, during these times I know that I am having a period of depression, or I am depressed, or I am experiencing anxiety and I know when to ask for help.

So why use that particular phrase? It’s a mystery. But my late husband would have referred to it as a “dog-whistle”. Google it and see what you think.

The problem, Piers says, is that all these people who identify as mentally ill (but aren’t really, is implied) are stopping the people who really need help from getting it. I think his point is that if you’re not suffering from medically diagnosed clinical illness such as clinical depression, or are bipolar, or are suicidal, then it’s not really a mental health issue. What is really important to remember here is that Piers Morgan is no more medically qualified than I am. That is to say, not at all. I would prefer to trust sources such as MIND or the Mental Health Foundation, and their advice is not the same as his.

Then he makes the argument that we should all just be more resilient, and then we wouldn’t have this problem. Basically, if you are experiencing mental ill health but not one of the types that he considers to be real, or serious, and the trigger for it is a life event such as grief or loss of a job or breakdown of a relationship, then you simply aren’t strong enough. You just need to be more resilient!

This makes a jump from whether somebody is mentally healthy or not, to whether they are mentally weak, or mentally strong. And to anyone who has had a period of poor mental health, that feels incredibly harsh. Added to this, while resilience can help a person to manage their mental health Outward Bound note that the relationship between mental health and resilience is a virtuous circle. In other words, having good mental health and wellbeing is a contributing factor in resilience, and resilient individuals are more able to successfully navigate mental health problems. A bit of googling reveals several academic papers that make this link, but none of them claim that resilience is a complete defence or cure for mental health issues.

The inference Piers seems to make is that everyone should have equal amounts of resilience and those that don’t have enough are weak. It’s not that simple, life is rarely that black and white. Our ability to develop and improve our resilience is affected by factors such as our support networks, our sense of control and our ability to control our emotions. What Does Resilient Mean? Definition and Characteristics (verywellmind.com) Not only that, but the big stressors (divorce, bereavement, redundancy) rarely happen in a vaccuum. Our resilience is already tested every day with financial worries, workloads, children, busy schedules, health concerns, elderly parents etc.

Resilience is developed over time, and while it can be strengthened, mental health problems can begin when our circumstances overwhelm our resilience. And in every article I have read today about how to build resilience, they say that when you reach this point - you should seek professional help.

Piers makes another reasonable point when he says that life happens. Things will happen in the normal course of a life. Relationships will break down, pets and loved ones will die, exams will loom, we may have bad health, or lose our job. In general we do need to develop the resilience to take the knocks of life and get back up again. “It’s not how many times you hit”, he reminds us that Rocky Balboa (a fictional character, by the way) said, “it’s how many times you get hit and get back up again”.

But sometimes we can’t get back up without help. And if you take nothing else away from this blog, please believe this. If your real-life experience is the sort of hit that has left you on the floor and you can’t get back up, then please don’t let Piers Morgan, or anyone else, tell you that you don’t deserve to ask for help because you should have been stronger or had more resilience.

The statement that upset me most in this clip was the one that diminished grief. Everyone goes through grief. People die, he said, that’s life. Again, this is true, but not all bereavements are equal, or require the same amount of resilience to recover from. Since 2018, when I was 45, I have lost my husband (53), my dad (77) and my gran (94). My resilience was not overwhelmed by the loss of my dad, or of my gran, although I loved them both dearly. I was sad for a time, which was harder given the cumulative bereavements, but I was able to recover relatively quickly.

The loss of my husband was a different story. I consider myself to be (or identify as!) resilient. I am often described by friends and acquaintances as "strong". I have good support networks, a strong sense of self awareness, I am able to identify the things that I am in control of, and I have a strong survivor mentality. However, Chris’s illness and death, and facing widowhood at 45 was something that was almost too much for me. This was an out of order death, preceded by a short but traumatic period when the person at the centre of my world was diagnosed with and treated for cancer. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the way that this trauma and loss would upend my life, and affect all those factors that helped me to be resilient. I am not ashamed to say that during periods of my grief journey I have tipped into mental illness and needed more support. The circumstances overwhelmed even my substantial reserves of resilience.

Yes, moving forward through my grief has strengthened my resilience - but I have needed help for that to happen.If I had not received that help - through friends, support groups like WAY Widowed and Young, my GP, and at one stage, medication, then I might not have had such a good outcome.

I could write for days about inequalities in mental health (I am actually professionally qualified on this point). Pressures such as abuse, trauma, discrimination, poverty, homelessness and stress mean that some disadvantaged groups have a greater risk for mental illness (source: MIND) although the highest rates of suicide in the UK are in men aged 45-49 (source: Mental Health Foundation).

Yes, NHS mental health services are overwhelmed. And it’s less provocative, but good advice,to say that we should all work on building our resilience when we can, through pushing out of our comfort zones, and we should teach our children resilience, for example to accept failure and learn from mistakes. But, it bears repeating, when our circumstances overwhelm our resilience, we should not be ashamed to seek help.

By doing so you are not stopping others from getting help, you are stopping yourself from progressing from mild depression/anxiety/unhealthy habits that can be treated with talking therapies, exercise and medication for example, into addiction, clinical depression and suicidal tendencies (which even Piers agrees are real problems).

Ironically, when you do seek help you find that all of it is designed to help us… to build more resilience! If you have developed unhealthy coping mechanisms such as dependence on alcohol, you might be offered rehab, where you will learn to reframe your thoughts and find healthier coping strategies - at the end you might be more resilient and hopefully able to manage your addiction. If you are depressed, or have anxiety, you may be offered medication to help you while you use talking therapies or CBT to reframe your thinking and learn better coping strategies - and thereby ideally become more resilient. There are no guarantees, though, there may still be times that your grief triggers you into another episode of poor mental health.

So actually, all my googling today has shown that when your circumstances overwhelm your resilience it can push you into poor mental health, and the best thing to do then is to ask for help, some of which will help you to develop your resilience as part of helping you to get better. This is different to saying that if you are more resilient you won't suffer from poor mental health.

Life is hard, we do need to be resilient. But during mental health awareness week, let’s remember that it’s ok to not be ok, and that we should feel able to ask for help when we need it, even if that sort of statement doesn’t generate many clicks or much advertising revenue.