One of the real frustrations I have is how this topic gets played out in the press. Even more frustrating is the lack of empathy, awareness or understanding many have, even in the medical and education field where you would expect greater levels of knowledge, expertise and compassion. We are susceptible to what we hear, particularly as it gets played out in the press, which can easily lead to judgements being made. I have been close to this topic throughout my life, knowing others who bear the additional burden of dealing with mental illness. I do not profess to be anything close to an expert on this, but the more I talk with others, the more I realize the need for greater understanding and appreciation for those with mental illness. These are people too, and with proper guidance, support, and treatment, can live productive and meaningful lives.
Let’s begin with a definition of mental illness from the Mayo Clinic.
Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors. Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function. (Source link).
Key to me is the realization that we all experience mental health conditions from time-to-time. Who has not experienced times where depression, anxiety, etc. has impacted our mood and behavior? The difference as I understand it is that those who are diagnosed with a mental illness have to deal with these challenges for much longer durations, often throughout their life, along with the impact that is has on their cognitive functions and abilities. The range of mental illnesses is huge, just as the term “disease” represents a wide range of medical conditions. Each type of disease is unique, and can have similar or different symptoms. So you simply cannot generalize when it comes to mental illness.
The following helped me attempt to understand mental illness… Consider this analogy. Those with physical handicaps often experience a lifetime of impact on what they can do and how they do it. A person in a wheelchair may not be able to climb up stairs like everyone else does, but with some modifications to their physical environment (e.g. ramps), they can achieve the same objective. The impairments are often physical in nature. We can see that they are different which makes it easier to understand their limitations and provide support where needed. The challenge with mental illness is that we cannot see it. A person looks “normal” on the outside. What we may see are odd or different behaviors, which we are quick to label and judge without understanding why. If we did, we could make some accommodations, just as we do for those with physical handicaps.
We have a great tendency in society to relate everything to some definition of “normal” which I find sad and tragic. What is normal anyway? Actually I would consider normal to mean that we all have challenges to deal with, some are just more difficult than others. Something we share as a part of the human condition is that we all have our crosses to bear. It seems to me to be a right of passage through this concept called life. (Personally, I believe that this all relates to one of our key purposes for being here. Challenges represent the primary way we grow as human beings).
What I have learned is that mental illness needs diagnosis and treatment, just as any medical condition would. Here is an example based on my friend’s experience. Juan has Anxiety Disorder and other characteristics of being on the autism spectrum. He described this as experiencing high levels of anxiety with any degree of change or stress. Imagine an alarm going off in your head with any change. It promotes the fight or flight response. When he was a child, this played out as having a strong temperament (fight response), leading others to believe it was a behavioral issue. His parents attempted to seek answers everywhere. They knew that something was wrong and depended on the medical community to help them figure it out. So often it was quickly labelled as a behavioral problem, calling for stricter discipline. But this only made things worse.
He also experienced challenges in school, having a very difficult time concentrating enough to complete his homework or take tests. His parents were told that he could just be lazy, needing stricter rules around homework. Needless to say, this did not help and also made things worse. (Later he spoke about the living hell his parents went through trying to work with the school administration and counselors to help them). It was not until he attended a program at a local hospital that the counselors and psychologist were able to figure out what was going on, and for the first time present a diagnosis to his parents. (I wish to use this moment to share my empathy with all those caring parents out there trying to understand and deal with a child with mental illness. If the educated and caring support was available earlier on, this could save so much aggravation, confusion, frustration and grief).
The difference came initially with medication to decrease the intensity of the anxiety. This can be also be an incredibly challenging topic since there are is so much misinformation out there. Parents so often struggle with this decision, fearing that it will lead to suicide or other significant side effects. It is my belief that without the medication, those I have met, would probably have been more prone to suicide or other behavioral issues without the primary symptom being addressed. In Juan’s case, once his anxiety was more manageable, he was able to start cognitive therapy to develop greater awareness of his situation along with new behaviors.
His story is characteristic of many in that he still experiences many challenges in life, but he is better able to function. With continued support and ongoing therapy, he is managing much better. Getting to know him was one of the most remarkable experiences for me. I could appreciate his differences knowing my own as well. With some of the same support we provide those with physical handicaps, we could provide so much more opportunity for those with mental handicaps. We could discover their incredible uniqueness and strengths.
I realize that there is so much more to mental illness than my story above could ever relate to. I only advocate a greater understanding and empathy for those dealing with mental illness vs. judgement and fear. And if by chance we find ourselves close to someone dealing with mental illness themselves or with a family member, take some time to understand their situation vs. giving advice.
To all those dealing with mental illness. Your hardships and how so many of you are working to overcome them are a major inspiration to me. A lot of my personal growth and self-discovery in the past 10 years has come from understanding your challenges and how hard you work to manage these. It reminds me that if you can do this, I can certainly overcome my own challenges. I look forward to the days when we as a society can better provide the love, understanding and support to those with mental illness.