Why is it so important to me that people understand the depth and breadth of the impact of mental illness?
Shame and stigma inevitably follow closely on the heels of a diagnosis of mental illness. They just do. According to everything I have read and everyone with whom I have spoken about their mental illness, it is fair to say that people suffering from mental illness feel shame and a stigma. These symptoms are simply strong companions to this illness. I’ve never had a sexually transmitted disease (STD), but I have often wondered if people with an STD are burdened by the weight of the same embarrassing boulder that mental illness sufferers lug around with them. Now isn’t that a concept – comparing an STD to a mental illness?
I believe that I understand why the shame and stigma are so intertwined with a mental health diagnosis. As I have written previously, mental illness is an invisible illness. People cannot reach out and touch any part of it. They cannot see a wound heeling. The chemical imbalance experienced by mental health sufferers effects the brain and the emotions. It’s not seeable. It’s not touchable. Without any concrete disease to identify, non-sufferers have to trust and accept verbal descriptions that likely do not make sense to them. What do you mean that you feel fear in the pit of your stomach? What does that feel like? What do you mean that you have shivers all over your body? What does that feel like? What do you mean that you are too scared to go outside? What does that feel like? What do you mean that you feel nauseous? Does that feel like the flu? What do you mean that you cannot concentrate even sufficiently to read a magazine? What do you mean that you are so sad that it hurts like hell? Can’t you see that there is so much good in your life? None of this is understandable to people outside the “club,” and there are times that it doesn’t make sense even to people inside the “club” either.
When asked about breast cancer, or thyroid illness, or diabetes, or high blood pressure, or acid reflux, people just start chattering away about their aches and pains and the medications that they take to help treat their symptoms. But ask someone about their mental illness (if anyone even dares to raise the subject) and the crowd goes quiet.
So, my theory is this. If the crowds could understand the depth and breadth of the impact of mental illness, mental health sufferers would not be sufferers. They would be able to come out of the closet, and be free to feel comfortable with owning their particular piece of baggage. They could feel more comfortable seeking out help, both medicinal and psychological, that they need to rebalance their systems. Then they would be able to live the best life possible as happy and productive human beings.