Mental Illness Needs Less Stigma and More Compassion.
I’m pretty tired of people treating mental health as if it requires the same kind of methodology as physical illnesses. Someone with an anger problem can’t be told to “calm down” or someone with an eating disorder “needs to eat more.”
This is a typical uneducated, ignorant response to people in duress. My family’s culture in particular, denies the existence of mental disorders entirely. People either do things right, or they don’t. This type of reaction is an indication of only one thing: privilege.
The stigma that people with mental illnesses face is part of the hierarchy of psychology. The people with better families, healthier diets, more time and resources, less to worry about in general, have then the privilege and the space to tell people to “calm down” or “stop stressing” because their world in a way, is so cut-and-dry that things really are that simple.
I read something somewhere a long time ago, which really stuck in my mind. It was something like, “If you break your leg, everyone brings you flowers. If you break your mind, everyone stays away from you.”
This is because we associate mental illness with a lack of control. While a lot physical illnesses just “happen” as a result of environment or genetics, the physical illnesses that happen as a result of poor lifestyle are almost never seen in mental terms; we are all so fascinated and proud of our cute little tangible world that we think we can always control.
Are people who are two, three or even four times more likely to develop mental illnesses due to genetics or environment always still in control?
Is a parent who lost a child to miscarriage in control?
Is a teenager, surrounded by a world that constantly tells her or him to always look white, look impossibly thin, look young for as long as they live, in control of their own self-image? Or is the world around them warping their own sense of body?
People who do not have these experiences, or do not have the genes that make them susceptible to mental illness, can very well sit there and tell a suicidal person to get over it. They can look at obese people with disgust and tell them to lose weight.
That is because they have nothing at all to worry about.
It’s sad because, strong communities are some of the most powerful tools to combat mental illnesses. Many of them cannot be cured, and require a lot of time and effort.
Right now, the responsibility falls on the state to treat mental illness. But at the same time, the state has finite resources. It comes up with the best solution that it can; medications that lessen symptoms and buy more time, together with combined therapy that takes a lot of time, trained professionals and crisis management that takes even more time and money to execute. There simply isn’t enough.
The duty falls on us, as it did with the societies before us, where the mentally infirm were taken into music halls, into calm spaces, into a safe place where they were not judged. We cannot expect the state to solve our problems. If the physically disabled need ramps, lifts and extra compassion and support to help them live a normal life, why do we not offer the mentally disabled the same?
Is it because it scares us? Is it because, confronted with something that is intangible, something that reminds us of a dark place within ourselves, do we choose to run to ignorance in order to comfort ourselves?
When Hamlet wants to prove the guilt of his uncle’s crime, he devises a brilliant scheme by making his uncle sit through a play that features the exact same method his uncle used to kill his father. The uncle runs out of the play out of guilt; a mere illusion is used to uncover the truth. Shakespeare’s point is even if we see a pale representation of the truth, it still has the capacity to move us.
I am convinced that the stigma around mental illness has everything to do with ego. We want to convince ourselves that we are in control, that we are the makers of our destinies and that society has set up a neat and scalable set of stairs that we can just climb as long as we dedicate ourselves.
And yet, when a loved one dies, when a relationship falls apart, when the train is late yet again, when we lose a child; these are all things that remind us that we are not in control at all. The madman forces us to face this truth; in the face of someone who has lost all control, it fractures something within us that provokes a violence; an urge that tells us to push away this thing, this demon. Lock it away, inject it, curse it away.
The truth of mental illness forces us to look deeply into ourselves, and most people do not want a picture of themselves taken unless they choose the angle and lighting. But it doesn’t work like that.
We will all go through loss at some point in our lives. That is to say, at multiple points in our lives, we will all lose control. Perhaps some of us have lost control already, and are using alcohol or social media as a cover to hide our pain. But we must all go through it.
It is therefore an insult to your own humanity to treat mentally ill people like they are animals.
When the time comes for you to lose control (and it will) will you be ready to “calm down?” then?