One of the most inappropriate questions I’ve ever been asked was by a complete stranger during an informal telephone chat recently.
He said: ‘I have to ask this. Have you ever experienced mental health issues?’
I was stunned. The fact the answer was ‘yes’ was neither here nor there. I had to bite my tongue from launching into: ‘What business is that of yours, mate?’
The trouble was, up until this point, the voice at the other end had been the epitome of politeness. He’d introduced himself as a Warren. Warren was talking me through an online life insurance application. After 5 minutes reciting the verbal equivalent of the small print - the jargon that didn’t mean much to him, less to me, but which he was still legally required to go through in a hurried monotone – we’d done smalltalk. I always conjure a face to go with anyone I find myself chatting to over the phone and for this salesman, complimenting the Essex accent burring down the line, I was picturing Gavin from Gavin and Stacy.
But the whole mood of our conversation changed with that question. Not from his point of view, of course. The formal aspect of this phone call, after all, was just part of his daily routine.Warren’s sudden intrusion into my personal health might have seemed simple enough to him. Just another box to tick. But it set off a whirlwind of defensive responses in my mind.
I’m well aware of the fact that around 1 in 4 adults in the UK would answer ‘yes’ to the same question. The problem is that mental health is still such an emotive subject. Ludicrous as this might be, it can still create all sorts of preconceptions. (I’m sure when news of my onetime hospitalisation for depression leaked, at the time there must’ve been the occasional comment about loony bins or funny farms).
But depression is curable. In my case, I’ve led a healthy life for over 20 years. I’m married with a young family. I’m a published writer who is about to measure the back garden for a trampoline for his daughter, not somebody contemplating launching themselves from the North Bridge (because that was what I, ridiculously, was imagining Warren imaging).
As my GP told me at the time, the human brain is such a fragile organ it’s a miracle more people don’t breakdown.
What seemed grossly unfair was that, by simply answering ‘yes’, Warren informed me the insurance underwriters were liable to load the premium on my policy by up to 80%.
I told Warren I’d have to think before committing myself to his policy. He stressed that loadings due to mental health issues, no matter how historic, were how the industry worked.
In my mind, Warren had become the mouthpiece of institutionalized prejudice. My experience of being ‘stressed out’ when I was much younger was going to be held against me. I tried not to get too stressed about it.