For those unaware, it was recently 2017’s Mental Health Awareness Week (May 8-14). Mental health, of course, is not just an issue for one week of the year – but what Awareness Week does provide us with is an apt opportunity to discuss, rationalise and destigmatise mental health within our society. Although I may struggle to envision a future where mental health is not an issue, it is completely within our powers to minimise its effects on our lives via frank, unapologetic and constructive discussion.
Throughout history, we humans have confronted the struggle for rationalisation through use of the arts. Art is often a vehicle for expressing that which is difficult to ordinarily communicate, and struggles with mental wellbeing – although understood variously at different points in time – are evident throughout artistic canon around the world. This article will discuss the importance of destigmatising mental health using the farewell poem of Misao Fujimura as a focal point, and as such will necessarily deal with such topics as suicide. If this is something that affects you, or indeed you would like someone to talk to about mental wellbeing in general, I strongly urge you to seek help and advice – contact details will be included underneath this article.
the poem is a raw and harrowing insight into the depths of Fujimura’s existential despair
Born in 1886, Misao Fujimura – a philosophy student, soon to be enrolled at Tokyo University – was not yet seventeen when he inscribed his famous farewell poem on a tree by Kegon Falls, Japan, shortly before tragically taking his own life. The poem is a raw and harrowing insight into the depths of Fujimura’s existential despair, with an overpowering hopelessness that may seem alien to some and all too familiar to others. Yet, whilst we can surely appreciate the impact and emotive expression of Fujimura’s poem, it is crucially important not to divorce the work from its context. Japan has a categorically high rate of suicide, at 15.4 (per 100,000), and it is the foremost cause of death for males aged 20-44 and females aged 15-34. UK statistics bear similarities, as the leading cause of death for males aged 20-49; UK men are also three times more likely to commit suicide than the opposite sex.
By all means, Fujimura’s poem is fit to be appreciated – the only thing which could make a person’s suicide more tragic is that person being forgotten. However, the poem should also serve as a reminder that mental health is, for many people, something they feel unable to express. Misao Fujimura was able to put his emotion into words, but only when he knew full well he would never live to see anybody read those words. I would like to think that, 114 years later, we live in more enlightened times – and perhaps we do. Yet, it is estimated that at least 1 in 6 UK adults live with ‘common mental disorders’ (CMD), and although since 2007 people have been more likely to consult professional help, overall rates of mental illness have increased, and demographic inequalities present markedly in those who receive treatment. Social stigmas around mental health remain, and although they may begin to be broken down, both objective and subjective evidence proves that the struggle is far from over.
there is always someone behind the words, behind the art; we owe our fellow human beings at least the chance to be heard, without prejudice or presumption
We should be careful not to romanticise Fujimura’s poetry, nor any other work which so frankly expresses problems which are all too real to so many people. Regardless of whether it is Mental Health Awareness Week or not, there is always someone behind the words, behind the art; we owe our fellow human beings at least the chance to be heard, without prejudice or presumption. If you take anything from Fujimura, please let it be empathy and understanding – he, and so many like him, have already given too much.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, or feel you would benefit from further discussion of mental wellbeing, the NHS’ list of mental health helplines can be found here; the Samaritans 24-hour helpline can be reached at 116 123; the University of Exeter’s Wellbeing Services can be contacted at 01392 724381, firstname.lastname@example.org, or via http://www.exeter.ac.uk/wellbeing/