A woman I know grew up with a mother who suffered from schizophrenia and an incredibly brilliant sister who battled bipolarism and an eating disorder before taking her life at the age of 35. She tried running from her family’s issues, but wherever she went, mental illness followed.
“The thing I feared the most has come down on me,” this native Kentuckian told me one morning over breakfast, alluding to Job 3:25. What she dreaded happened to her. Her adult son didn’t escape the family’s history of severe mental illness.
“I’ve been surrounded by mental illness my entire life,” she continued. “It’s not pleasant dealing with it. That person can be hard to deal with. But most families just want support…a visit, prayers.” A friend who will listen.
What she wants most is for society to see mental health problems as medical conditions, just like cancer, heart disease or diabetes. Not something to be ignored or ashamed of.
Mental Health Awareness Month
Since Mental Health Awareness Month begins in a few days, I’m going to try to shine a light on the issues this woman faces daily. This article isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritative. It’s a story written to help educate people broadly on what mental illness is and what it isn’t.
Maybe an attitude or two will change.
The simple truth is that most people, at some point in their lives, have experienced a mental health concern.
Death, divorce, all manner of traumas, can affect mood, thinking and behavior. But just because you fear public speaking, for example, doesn’t mean you have a phobia. And just because you feel sad doesn’t necessarily mean you suffer from chronic depression.
But if the symptoms persist, cause frequent stress, and affect your ability to function, well yes, it might be time to seek help.
If this sounds like you or someone close to you, you’re not alone.
One in five, or 52.9 million U.S. adults, lives with mental illness. The condition refers to a range of disorders that fall into broad categories, including anxiety, mood, substance-related, personality, and dissociative disorders, to name just a few.
Most of these illnesses range from mild to moderate to severe and are thought to be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors. For example, mental illness may run in your family, as in my friend’s case. Or it could be attributed to a childhood trauma. Other risk factors include drug and alcohol abuse and an imbalance in brain chemistry.
In most cases, these conditions can be treated. A combination of lifestyle changes, therapy, medication, and support are effective—more so in some depending on the condition and the individual involved.
And that’s the good news.
Furthermore, the stigma—the mark of shame—surrounding these conditions has begun to subside.
“No one is oppressed for having diabetes or heart disease, but mental health issues are still marginalized. I do, however, see a silver lining because of the pandemic,” said Kristin Colino, an advocate who will be featured in next week’s blog post. “The young adults and teens today are much more open about their struggles with anxiety and depression.”
Insensitivity and Ignorance
The bad news? Insensitivity and ignorance remain.
I learned this the hard way. I wrote about my own insensitivity and ignorance in a blog post published in October. You can read the piece for yourself, but in a nutshell, I had been dismissive of a friend who seemed perennially blue. I saw her problems as self-inflicted.
As we talked last year, I stifled my judgment and asked her a question. That’s when she told me that she didn’t have positive thoughts. Only negative. Life, to her, was “something to get through.” And then I understood. My friend appeared to suffer from chronic depression, a severe case. Hers wasn’t a case of just not bucking up.
A member of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) can also speak to the insensitivity and ignorance. At a NAMI fundraiser a couple of years ago, a man and a woman approached the organization’s table. “Oh, is this where the crazy people come?” the man asked the NAMI member.
Can you imagine? Would that man have said something equally as insensitive to a cancer patient?
It is time to start changing attitudes.