Mental Health and Statistics — How Do You Fit into the Picture?
When I was 10 years old, my cousin, who must have been at least in his 30s — man, he was OLD — taught me how to play chess. As he taught me the pieces, the moves and the strategy, I internalised it all, and quickly beat him at his own game. (Let's be honest, he probably let me win.) At the tender age of 10 — ever-precocious — I took one of the first major executive decisions of my life, and decided to never play chess again. And thus, now that I am at least a decade older than my cousin was when he taught me to play, I remain an unbeaten chess champion.
I am an unlikely chess player. I don't have the patience or dedication, or interest to actually play. My stance drives real chess players mad. I never tell them that I have played only once, I only tell them that I am 100% unbeaten. And then I solemnly bow out of a challenge once it is invariably extended. It is a little esoteric joke that I have with the world. The decision that I took over 30 years ago is a booster in many situations — it makes me absurdly happy to be a champion at something, but it is also a sobering reminder that statistics are manipulated numbers in the hands of their stakeholders. It is a collection of data that was collected, researched and analysed and then set up in a particular way in order to share the knowledge. Even if the entire scenario was built up in an objective and clinical manner, there are ways to build the same scenario to get different results. Who's to say that there is no agenda behind the numbers — an agenda that can either make the results seem better or worse than they really are? And what about all the unknown factors and variables that are not taken into account: demographics, geography, sociology, gender, age... etc.? We have heard a lot said about mental health disorders and substance abuse over the past few weeks: in particular a lot of terrible instances of suicide and loss. According to Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie (2018) - "Mental Health". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health' [Online Resource] over 15% of the global population has mental health and substance use disorders. These numbers are staggering, and even more shocking considering they they are likely to be inaccurate — not because of any hidden agenda — but on account of the fact that 'mental health and substance use disorders are still significantly under-reported.'
So there you have it, a terrible number, a shocking number which is likely to be even higher. A tragedy of a global proportions. A red light, blinking wildly for us to act, in the form of a statistic. Even though the following are not global contexts, consider that number the next time you are in a room with 15 people: in a meeting, at a restaurant, on a bus, in a shop. Chances are very high that on a daily basis you come into contact with someone who has a mental health issue and is dealing with it, or even someone who hasn't yet internalised or shared that he or she needs help.
The language of statistics is a funny language, sometimes it can give us a boost, and other times it can give us a punch in the stomach that leaves us wide-eyed and wondering how well we know the world around us. It also begs the question — if you have the niggling feeling that you yourself are amongst the people that need help, will you step up, or will you, for the sake of appearances and statistics, refuse to accept the challenge, just to maintain your personal record or reputation?