Health of the Mind
Mental illness is a complex and pervasive worldwide issue. Just as everyone eventually gets a cold or a cough or a sniffle at some point in life, as no body is a perfectly oiled machine, the mind also suffers at some point as well. Whether it is sadness over the loss of a loved one, anxiety over a major life transition, anger caused by a lack of control, or any other emotion prolonged abnormally longer than usual, everyone experiences mental imbalance at some point in their life. It is something we try desperately to control, hide, or even mask, all in the effort to appear “normal” to those who surround us. We often fail to realize that those close to us may be enduring the same struggle, silent in their efforts, but in pain nonetheless.
Think of yourself at a heavy metal concert, guitars blaring onstage, multiple singers screaming into microphones, and the audience raging all around you. This can be how it feels, only except that you are at a heavy metal concert, and the rest of the world is at a symphony. You are trying to have a conversation, but you cannot hear what you are saying, so you are not sure it makes much sense. What is being said to you is indecipherable and therefore you have no context, and the world is incredibly loud. But to everyone else at the symphony, it makes sense – the music is at a tolerable level in coherent patterns that are pleasing to the ear. Your concert has far too many stimuli to process, it is random and hurts and you cannot leave. You hate yourself for not understanding, you hate others for not understanding you, but paradoxically, you do not want them to leave, because you know that being alone would be even worse.
Mental illness is daunting because it encompasses a huge array of issues, everything from mild depression to chronic schizophrenia. The diagnoses that lie between these are vast and difficult to diagnose, much less differentiate from other diagnoses at times. But the human mind is an amazing thing – some have the amazing ability to “pull it together” when needed, only to fall to pieces later when they are alone and no one can see how much they are suffering. Our ability to persevere not only makes us resilient but also often complicates effective treatment of the mind.
Shedding the Stigma
Acceptance of mental illness, just like any other health concern, is key to getting help to those who need it and shedding light on the countless people who struggle on a day-to-day basis. If one has a cold, or a bladder infection, or cancer, they would never be told, “Think positively”, or “Someday you will feel better”, or “Buck up”. While difficult to treat, as it can be a lifelong illness, it cannot be pinned down to a day or a week or a month. Additionally, a cold is visible – the coughs and sniffles proclaim, “I am ill! I do not feel well! My body is not 100%!”. People empathize, bring soup or tissues and know that eventually, you will recover. If you do not recover and have a long term illness which requires prolonged treatments, people sympathize even more so, recognizing that your gaunt figure and hairless scalp indicate that you are enduring a huge trial for your body, one that you may not recover from. The same people that tell you that brighter days are ahead, don’t be so sad, think happy thoughts, would never think to say those to someone suffering from allergies or the discovery of a tumor, as positive thoughts alone willing away your sneezing or malignant cancer would be ludicrous.
But people with depression do not typically lose their hair in large chunks, nor do they become jaundiced, or experience hacking coughs that rattle their entire bodies. They experience extreme sadness that shrouds their perception of everyday life. They experience incessant thoughts that their brain tells them can only be alleviated by alcohol or razor blades. They hear voices, telling them that they are horrible human beings, or see figures, seemingly stalking them at every turn. They experience periods of anger, sadness, loneliness, hatred, and anxiety that cripples the mind from making even the simplest of decisions. Choices become painful and overwhelming, and seclusion becomes necessary. Treatment is time-consuming and arduous, tweaking medication to right levels, finding the therapy that works best with your thought processes, and pursuing more invasive routes like shock therapy and deep brain stimulation.
The stigma of mental illness not only makes it difficult for people to accept that they need help and then seek it out but taxes their families and relationships as well. When we work with those who have a mental illness, we focus on the individual, often forgetting that their family is experiencing similar issues to some extent, right at their side. Health care often does not integrate the mothers, fathers, siblings, partners, and caregivers, who need as much help as the individual being treated. The stigma of mental illness lays blame on the individual and quite often, their family as if they had some control over their genetics. But we forget about the brother, who is being bullied by the same children who bully his autistic brother, the mother, who is caring for her own mother with dementia who just does not understand why she can no longer drive, or the parents, who are struggling to accept that their child may never be able to function effectively in the workplace. Families need just as much support as the individual in need, just as much comfort in that they are doing the right thing, and just as many coping mechanisms to help maintain their relationships.
The first step is understanding. Understanding that those may not perceive the world just as you do, not only due to how they were raised, societal norms, gender, or occupation, but because they may have a mental illness. Understanding that they may have once attempted suicide, but everyone has bad days, and that does not mean asking them if today will be the day. Understanding that while people change, heal, and find ways to cope, scars often remain, and this is not just cause for judgment. Understanding that everyone goes through periods, which deviate from their baseline because we are not perfect. Understanding that hiding, whether it is from treatment for yourself or from reaching out to those who may need assistance in getting help is never an option.
There are no Band-Aids. There are no quick fixes. There are no magic pills, no sure cure. There is pain and hurt and confusion. But there also can be patience, kindness, and understanding. There can be hard work and perseverance, knowing that medication needs adjusting and treatment takes time. There needs to be compassion for those who are struggling and those who surround them, who are trying to take action but need to continue to be a sister, or a father, or a son. Because labeling individuals with mental illnesses as weak-minded is inherently an illness in of itself; the irony is that those who lack the capacity to empathize with feelings of others is a critical marker for mental illness. Understanding and empathy is not the only key to helping to the millions of people who struggle with mental health on a daily basis, but also to maintain our humanity. Humanity without empathy degrades us to a savageness that cannot be sustained – without empathy, we cannot relate, we cannot connect, we cannot love.
So instead of saying “things will get better” or “think happy thoughts” or “get over it”, say “let’s just take this one day at a time”, “I am here for you”, “What can I do to help?”, “Talk to me about it”, “You are not alone”.
Find help. Offer help. Be a friend, an ear, a shoulder, a resource. Because you never know when you may need it for yourself.
For immediate help, visit: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1‑800‑273‑TALK (8255)
Families in need of resources should visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness
For everything from childhood depression to eating disorders, check out: http://www.mentalhealth.gov/