Yesterday over breakfast, my mother and I were talking about how open people of my generation are to discussing mental illness. People of her generation (Silent Generation – people born between 1925 and 1945) wouldn’t dream of talking about mental illness of any kind in casual conversation, let alone acknowledging it in private.
It just wasn’t done!
As recently as 40 years ago, it was typical for family members with severe mental illness to be sent away and not talked about at all. (Remember post lobotomy Rosemary Kennedy?) People with milder problems were treated for physical ailments that MIGHT be causing the mental symptoms, or told that there was nothing wrong with them that a little discipline (or hard work or sleep or food) couldn’t fix. Serious conditions that were acknowledged were often blamed on “refrigerator mothers,” responsible for everything from autism to schizophrenia. Shell shock and drunkenness were seen as character weaknesses, their biological basis not considered for a hot second!
Ignored, blamed, judged, cast out, denied and cloaked in shame, people suffering from or affected by mental illness had few options for relief and little to no support from their communities, friends or family. They were suffocated by the isolation, symptoms escalating until they became unmanageable.
Today it’s less of this, but there is still so much ignorance and shame when it comes to mental illness. And that, my friends, is ridiculous, because now days, we know so much more about the cause and treatment of mental illness. It’s nobody’s fault when someone is mentally ill. It just is!
Oh, and thank the gods, these days, mental illness is treatable!
From the mild depression to full blown psychosis, medical science now provides us with some new information about the biological causes as well as many great options for the long term management and treatment of mental illness. There are even laws on the books to protect the rights of those who are diagnosed with mental illness.
Yet the shame, the doubt, the ignorance, the stigma are still alive and well, preventing people from getting the help they need and wreaking havoc on our justice and medical systems, and ripping families apart. But what really chaps my ass is the denial.
Ugh! The denial!
We breathe a sigh of relief when a cause is attached to a physical ailment, don’t we? Oh…so THAT’S what’s wrong! Germ and visible symptom identified, we holler a collective HOORAY for penicillin and antibiotics, aspirin, Viagra, Lipitor, insulin, Prednisone, Prilosec and all the beta-blockers too, whatever it takes to make whatever ails us better, right? No shame in having heartburn or clogged arteries from decades of eating blocks of cheese as big as your head and smoking a pack a day, but gods forbid you have the blues or can’t stop throwing up your food.
Seriously, SNAP OUT OF IT!
Got some burny, itchy yeast in your labia folds? Not your fault, sistah!
GET YOURSELF A SHAME FREE TUBE OF MONISTAT!
Got a problem with nervous skin picking, pulling out your eyelashes and hair, an urge to binge and purge, hearing voices, delusions or impulsivity and hyperactivity?
GET OVER IT, and also, feel heaps of guilt and shame for being weak minded. LOSER!
Suck it up. Snap out of it. Get over it. Minimize it. Deny it. Ignore it.
As if that were even possible! Mental illness isn’t an imaginary something. Like anything other disease, it often gets worse if it’s not treated.
“In 2012, an estimated 16 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. This represents 6.9 percent of all adults.”
National Institute of Mental Health
That number from the NIMH is impossible to minimize, deny or ignore. Untreated depression is as real and as dangerous as a strep infection. People die from complications related to both these diseases.
Why do feelings of shame and doubt and denial come so much easier than acceptance, acknowledgement and treatment when it comes to mental illness? Do we tell people with common physical issues to try harder? Would we tell a diabetic to try harder to make insulin or a person with erectile dysfunction to try harder (pun intended!)?
Because we know that would be ridiculous. And the truth is, even if people struggle to acknowledge it, to tell a mentally ill person to stop being mentally ill is just as ridiculous as telling a physically ill person to stop being physically ill!
Mental illness is hard to see. It’s complicated and difficult and presents itself in a unique way in everyone who has it. If only depression came with a rash, maybe this wouldn’t ever have been a problem. But it doesn’t. It never will. And you will never hear the inner dialogue of a person whose soul is being shredded by the noise of an unquiet mind.
It’s the year 2014. Babies can be conceived in petri dishes, diseases that once wiped out thousands in one fell swoop have been eradicated, yet the brain is still the Wild West of the human body. Yes, we have a long way to go. No, we can’t SEE mental illness the way we see psoriasis or an asthma attack, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
It’s also National Mental Illness Awareness Week. I’ll be writing a lot and sharing a lot of information about mental illness. I hope you choose to stick around and read what I share.
(Drops mic….until the next post!)