Let's Talk About Our Struggles
One in five Canadians suffer with a mental illness.
That is 4.5 million people.
One in four Americans suffer from a mental illness.
That is 57.7 million people.
Why are mental illnesses still seen as 'taboo'?
Those numbers speak the truth and they speak it loud - Mental illnesses affect a huge portion of people on Earth. The thing with mental illnesses is that they do not discriminate. It does not matter where you live, what race you are, what religion you follow, your gender, your age, or your wealth. All of that doesn't matter. Perhaps some people are more susceptible to mental illnesses than others, but nobody is immune.
Since so many people are affected by mental illnesses, why does the vast majority of the population still hold tight onto stigmas? It seems normal for a person who has suffered a broken leg to declare this injury and thus receive support from friends, family, and the workplace. Work understands that you have a broken leg and need to recover from it. Your friends and family understand that you have a broken leg. Now, let's turn this situation around. Does it seem normal for a person suffering from bipolar disorder or PTSD to declare this illness to friends, family and the workplace? How often have you seen a fellow coworker or an employee tell their management that they are struggling with schizophrenia and need time to recover?
Not very often. Yes, it is improving slightly with time and with the help of social media, but it is not improving enough for me to not be writing this article. In the case that someone does speak to those around them about their mental illness, the reactions to such a statement can widely vary - but in most cases, are negative.
The difference between recovering from a broken leg and recovering from a mental illness is the structure of time and reassurance. We can map out, roughly, the time it will take to heal from a broken bone. We also can have sound answers - Yes, it will heal. No, it does not need to be put in a cast. These two factors are extremely important on numerous levels. Firstly, they provide answers. We know what the problem is and we know how to fix it. Secondly, it's visible. You can physically see, and show, what is broken. This visibility is what lets others around you confirm what you are saying. It can provide sympathy - When someone stands to let you sit on the bus when you are on crutches, for example. Thirdly, it gives you peace of mind. You have been told you suffered from a broken bone due to an injury, and you have also been told what the healing process for that looks like.
Mental illnesses are lacking on these factors. A diagnosis can take years to figure out - and this could be for a number of different reasons. Unlike seeing a broken bone on an x-ray, mental illnesses must be diagnosed through both physical and most importantly, mental symptoms. This causes a delay in determining what the mental health issue is - and even then, they can often be misdiagnosed. Another factor to weigh in is that for a vast majority of people, they do not seek the help they need for their illnesses for fear of a negative reaction. This leads to years, or even decades, of time added to getting a correct diagnosis. Now, if and when we know what the problem is, figuring out how to fix it is another story. We cannot put our minds into a cast. A doctor cannot say, "You will be cured from your depression in three months." A doctor can say, "By taking this medication you should feel less depressed in six weeks." Less doesn't mean gone. And, while we can sometimes see the symptoms that come along with various mental illnesses - mood instability, self harming behavior, weight changes, etc - we cannot see what is broken. This is where people fail to provide the same sort of reaction upon learning someone has a mental illness. The term 'mental illness' can mean anything from a mild anxiety disorder to schizophrenia - but almost everyone hears it as all the same thing - Not normal. Different. Freak. Unstable. Upon learning someone has a mental illness that they work with or are friends with, most people change their complete view of that person. They over analyze what they used to see as just normal sadness or absences.; those now become scary. Some people may not even feel safe around you - how many people would feel this radical change of emotions if the person had a broken leg, not a mental illness? Missing, too, is the peace of mind. Knowing that the problem is not something you can put a band-aid over - like if it were a cut - but, instead something that resides within your brain is frightening. How do you fix something you cannot see? How do you fix something without that cure that is a guaranteed success? A lot of people hold the misinformed opinion of 'just getting over it'. Classic cases of these mindsets include, "Just cheer up", "You have to get over it", or "It's all just in your head. You're fine." Since when did the general population become doctors? Would you give this treatment advice to someone with diabetes? So, what does a realistic treatment look like?
A start would be to wash away this stigma. The more we carry around either the shame of a mental illness or the judgement of those with one, the more we prevent healing. The more people hide, due to the fear of having such negative reactions, the longer they will go without help. Secrecy and guilt are two favorite foods of a mental illness. It's time to stop feeding it.
Once we acknowledge a mental illness, then we can begin to get help for it. Until we acknowledge that mental illnesses are something that affects such a large amount of people, then it will continue to remain invisible. We need to shift from this invisibility and into acceptance. We need to start talking about it and we need to start educating ourselves about it.
This is, of course, not an easy thing to do. Yes, some people may judge you by coming forward with your mental illness - but you will also find support in those that are understanding. You will, also, add more to the chances of others stepping forward. How fantastic is it when you are able to read or hear that someone else feels the suffocation that is anxiety? How comforting is it to know that other people have the paranoia of being watched that you do? The more we share and talk about our problems, the less control these problems have over our lives.
Will we be able to get rid of the stigma of mental illnesses overnight? Of course not. However, overnight is one night closer to succeeding. If you are suffering with a mental illness, I urge you to have the bravery to speak out about it. If you hold judgement, or even just are unsure, when it comes to mental illnesses, I urge you to educate yourself on it. There is a good chance that someone very close to you - a coworker, a cousin, a parent - has a mental illness.
I will end this article by taking my own advice and sharing with you my mental illnesses. I have been diagnosed with PTSD and bipolar type 2 disorder. Have I lost the respect of some people about it? Yes. But, I have also received overwhelming support and respect from most people that I know. It is a freeing feeling to share your struggles with those that are important to you. The more I am accepting of the fact that I do struggle with these problems, the easier it is to absorb the help that is given - because then it becomes real.
How has your life been affected by mental illnesses? I would love to hear your story.