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How are we going to fix society’s most invisible but most prevalent issue?
Would you ever tell someone with asthma “it’s not real, it’s all in your lungs?” Would you dare disgrace diabetics? No. No, you would not.
So why do we tell people with mental illnesses “it isn’t real, it’s all in your head?” Why do we shame those suffering from silent killers? This indifference and minimization of the invisible issues that plagues 1 in 5 Canadians has propelled mental illnesses to the top of prevalent health issues. We need to fix this.
But what exactly, and who exactly, are we fixing? Because unlike society’s other health issues like obesity, diabetes, and asthma, who all have clear “targets,” mental illness shows no bias. Anxiety and panic disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, anorexia, bulimia, and schizophrenia are just some of the recognized diseases under this ignored umbrella.
Science has yet to be able to pinpoint an exact cause of mental illness, possibly due to the fact that there is no pinpoint. Nobody is immune. All of these disorders are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors, unlike society’s other health issues that can all be traced back to specific causes. Mental health is at the disposal of so many factors nobody can hide from. That is why it is the most prevalent health issue in today’s society. Since it plagues so many people, you would think that mental illnesses would have clear-cut, respected symptoms, right?
The most common symptoms associated with mental illnesses are feeling sad or down, suffering from confusion, having difficulty with focusing, living with extreme and excessive emotions, withdrawing from friends and social engagements, and a constant feeling of tiredness and low energy.
Any of these sound familiar? They probably do because let’s face it, all of those can be equated with normal human emotions, leading us to discount them as symptoms.
Meanwhile, symptoms of obesity, asthma, and diabetes are abnormal. This means we are more open to accepting and acknowledging their validity.
Take it from me. I deal with clinical depression and anxiety disorder. I felt all of those “normal human emotions” that I now know are symptoms. But because of the way society discounts them, I thought nothing of it.
The one thing I did think about was the fact that the rest of the normal human emotions, happiness, relaxation, and calmness, were completely missing. I was doing everything the pamphlet on life said would make me happy, but I was in a constant darkness. Part of me recognized that there was an issue, but I was so brainwashed by society’s motto of “it’s all in your head” that I did nothing.
I am not the only one who has found themselves in this situation. Around 49% of people suffering from these extreme symptoms admit to never seeking help.
I eventually got help, as a desperate way to get out of the dark. It saved my life. But why did it get to that point? Why do so many people let it get to that point? Kate Spade, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Avicii. All celebrities lost to suicide. They represent the thousands of other people who never sought help.
“A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” That’s how the dictionary defines stigma. And mental illness is one of the most stigmatized things in society.
Unfortunately, we can’t just erase stigma. It has deeper roots than any of us could ever imagine. Going all the way back, people with mental illnesses were thought to be possessed by evil spirits and were ostracized. That evolved into them being seen as “wild beasts” that needed to be caged. This led to the creation of insane asylums. All of this shaped the treatment of mental illnesses and how we viewed them. It was never accepted. If anything, it became more and more rejected.
As much as events like World War I helped, with its acknowledgement of “shell shock” as being a real problem, nobody was ever able to uproot stigma and replant it in a galaxy far, far away.
That’s in part why we have undoubtedly heard even the closest generations above us say things like “We didn’t talk about it.” Mental illness remained, and can even still remain, explicitly taboo.
How do we start talking about it?
Since it’s an issue that plagues all of society, whether you’re personally diagnosed or know someone who has been, we are all touched by it. So it makes sense that as a society, we band together to fix it.
We can start with education. In schools, on social media, in our conversations: we need to be constantly educating. We need to end the alienation of those suffering with mental illnesses by showing the rest of society that there is nothing to alienate. We are just like everyone else. There are many initiatives out there that are doing amazing things to make sure we are getting the education needed. From the Bell Let’s Talk campaign and the Jack Project, people all over the country are starting initiatives rooted in compassion in attempts to teach the rest of the world that there is so much to learn.
Out of education, we also need to develop a consciousness of our language. A lot of reflexively used terms like “it is just a phase” or “you can get out of it if you try” are rooted in stigma and are rotting our chances of having people come forward for the help they need. We are letting ourselves be convinced that it is our fault through phrases used by people that don’t necessarily get why they’re using them.
While we learn to be conscious of our language, we also need to be learning to equate physical and mental health issues in our minds. We are so used to giving all of our sympathy and attention to the health issues that we can see with our eyes, like obesity or even broken bones, that we ignore mental illnesses. We tell people it’s all in your head as if that’s a way of getting us to believe it isn’t real.
Technically, it is all in our heads in the same way that a broken arm is all in your arm. Scans show that there are legitimate differences between a healthy brain and a brain suffering through mental illness. How many scans will it take for us to realize that just because this issue is invisible doesn’t mean it isn’t real. The brain may not be as physically broken as an arm, but like a broken arm, a mentally ill brain can not complete its purpose.
As a society and as people who deal with mental illnesses, we need to be okay to talk openly about it all. We need to not fear this very real, very common problem, because it is landing so many people in so many dangerous places. The walls we have built on our tongues are blocking stigmas from ending and people from getting help. We need to break down the walls and allow it all to no longer be taboo.
Us, the people who live with mental illness everyday, also have the responsibility to choose empowerment over shame.
This can be done by those of us who have already been diagnosed, or those suffering with symptoms that have yet to come forward and get help. Instead of allowing the societal stigma to convince us that this is all our fault, that it is something we can control, we need to own our lives and our story, illnesses and all. Because if we can not accept it all, how can we expect anyone else to?
Finally, we just need to agree to be honest. Be honest that you have an appointment with a psychiatrist. Be honest you can’t make those plans because you have a therapy session. Be honest that you were at the drugstore to fill your prescription.
People say all the time they have a doctor’s appointment without fear. So what’s with this fear of admitting we have to go see brain doctors? They’re the people that are helping us reset our brains to full functionality. It may take longer than resetting a broken arm, but it’s the same concept.
Stigma won’t end until we take away its power.We won’t have a society that isn’t plagued by mental illness until we take away stigma.
Mental illness is a fixable problem. It doesn’t have to be the most prevalent issue in society. It just needs to be accepted for what it is: a health issue. But one that can be taken care of.
One that we will fix.
Originally Published in Bandersnatch Vol. 48 Issue 02 on September 26, 2018