The Broken Leg Analogy

Relax! There are no gruesome broken leg images here. I googled it. It was not good. So, no pictures.

If you have had a mental health problem you already know what I mean by the title, don’t you? Ahhhh the broken leg analogy! Incredibly useful but inherently flawed. 

One of the major contributors to mental health stigma is that people can’t see it and there is no scientific test to numerically measure it. Gradations of severity are based on subjective (well-trained) opinions. I often find myself wondering ‘am I really ill though? Maybe if I just tried a bit harder I’d be ok?’. I was having this discussion with my nurse this week. I’m going to call her Nora here which totally isn’t her name but Nurse Nora is good alliteration, OK? Well, it’s happening.


Right, so I’m discussing with Nora how I’m not really ill and I’m a burden. She is valiantly and persistently trying to convince me that I actually am ill. And, there it is, the broken leg analogy. Comparing mental illness to physical illness can be very useful actually. We wouldn’t dream of treating physical illnesses the way that we treat mental illnesses. 

Brilliant cartoon from robot-hugs

And it helps me to cut myself some slack when I compare having depression, anxiety and cPTSD to a physical illness. It makes sense to me. No, if I had a broken leg I probably wouldn’t be so hard on myself. It would definitely be ok to rest. That’s where comparing mental illness to a physical complaint like a broken leg is actually very helpful.
But when Nora compared my mental illness to a broken leg I felt angry.

I didn’t understand why I felt so angry but I did! I retorted “I wish I had a broken leg!”. I didn’t wish I had a broken leg. Not really and especially not now after those Google images. But, despite how awful a broken leg must be, I confess to a feeling of jealousy. Nuts right? Well, think about this: imagine being able to go to a hospital, be treated, be given a time frame for healing, have everyone make exceptions for your limited ability because they can see that you have a problem. Yes, thinking about it, I’m not jealous of broken legs. I’m jealous of the treatment of broken legs.

I wish I could get treatment.

I wish I had some sort of time frame.

I wish people could understand why things are difficult.

(Yeah, yeah I sound pathetic. I get that.)

Treatment. Hmmm. This seems like a good time to mention that I am actually very grateful for what now must be the thousands of NHS pounds spent on me. The GP appointments, the meds, the 2 days in hospital, the crisis team, the phone calls, the CMHT time, Nora (!) etc etc. All of this has a cost and I appreciate how fortunate I am to live somewhere that I can access these things. BUT all of this time and money that is being spent isn’t treating the illness. Bizarrely I feel really guilty about this. I don’t want the NHS to waste money on me! Of course I don’t! When I say that I’m not getting treatment despite seeing all of these different people that seems like a contradiction so I’m going to exploit the broken leg analogy for my own purposes now.

Firstly, how long does it take to get treatment for a broken leg? I ask because at the moment I’ve waited 5 months for counselling and it looks like it will be 8 months before I get counselling. Do people wait 8 months with broken legs?

I’d guess if you had an illness or injury and had to wait all of that time that your condition would deteriorate. That’s certainly what’s happened to my mental health as I wait. But, say you did have to wait 8 months to be seen for your broken leg and it’s appointment time finally, how would you feel if the doctor then refused to treat you because your leg was now in such a bad state because of your wait? I’d guess you’d be pretty mad. You may even attempt to rip your leg off and throw it at the doctor in a rage because how utterly fucking ridiculous. No one could think that makes sense and it doesn’t. Well, it’s what’s happening to me. No, really! So I’ll wait out my 8 months for counselling through IAPT and then when it’s my turn they may refuse to treat me as I’m considered a risk because of the suicide stuff. So, to be clear, my condition deteriorated whilst I waiting to the point that they might not see me after all that. I cannot get my sick little head round that.

But back to our poor broken leg patient. He needs a name. Let’s call him Bob (with the broken leg). Once Bob calms down he realises that, of course, the NHS aren’t going to leave him untreated. I mean, it’s been 8 months. His leg is a mess. No, of course something will be done. Bob waits to hear the plan. The best plan is more waiting. How long do I have to wait Bob wants to know. It’s been such a struggle for him to get this far he just wants to steel himself for the journey ahead. Ummm don’t know how long Bob. Right. We do know it’ll be months. Right. Is anyone else wondering how the fuck poor Bob is supposed to manage? He can’t work, he struggles with his kids, he can’t get out so much, he’s in pain. This really is a shit situation for Bob. On the plus side everyone he meets enquires about his leg and are outraged for him. Everyone can see how tough things are for Bob. Well, this is where I find myself except without the sympathy of everyone I meet. I get stigma and shame instead (yay!). I do have good people around me: people who want to help me write letters; people who want to fight with me, for me. I’m grateful for it. Trust me. It doesn’t make any sense to me actually because I don’t know why any one would care about me but I appreciate it that’s for sure. 

I guess a few people might start to question Bob’s version of events. The guy sees Doctors all the time how can his leg not be getting better? A reasonable, completely incorrect, presumption. When Bob sees the Dr the appointments just check that Bob is managing ok on the meds he has been given. He has been given medication to try and help him through this difficult time. Unfortunately the medication can make it worse but that’s just the way it works. And Bob sees a nurse too but her job is to check that Bob is still just about functioning and isn’t going to die. So, whilst these people are seeing Bob and are trying to help they aren’t actually fixing anything. Hmmm. You might think poor Bob might end up depressed…

That’s why the broken leg analogy made me angry.

Ways my mental illness is like a broken leg:

  • It hurts, it is a real problem, it prevents me from living my life normally, it gets worse if left untreated.

Ways my mental illness is not like a broken leg:

  • No one would be expected to endure the waiting lists and pain in a physical injury that mental health patients are expected to endure.
  • Mental illness kills more people than broken legs. 
  • I cannot be simply fixed with a cast.
  • I can’t talk about my illness.

Yeah, imagine I had a broken leg. I fucking wish.

5 thoughts on “The Broken Leg Analogy

  1. Standard Deviation says:

    I love your brilliant and articulate writing. Unfortunately this will resonate strongly for many who are going / have been through the same. When are we as a society going to start getting our shit together, stop the lip service and actually *DO* something constructive regarding mental healthcare provision in this country?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shirley says:

    This blog is outstanding!! Thank you so much for writing this; it is the best comparison I have ever read. So accurate and so damned true! I have retweeted from SANE and I will share on my FB page too. Everybody needs to see this. The Govt need to read this. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Natasha says:

    What a great peice of writing and think you have captured it brilliantly. I totally agree with the long waiting lists in terms of mental health and think it is appalling . Mental illness is becoming more life threatening and things need to change.

    Liked by 1 person

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