Recently I read the writings of three young people who reached out to me through my blog. All three are struggling with mental health issues. Two of the writers are fortunate in that they only face the typical challenges that accompany bipolar and anxiety disorders. However, the third person has more diagnoses than any one human being should be forced to manage. As I read the list of her illnesses that she cites in her own blog, I became subdued and sad at the point where she referred to herself as someone who was a “suicidal head case” – “subdued” because I remembered the feeling of despair I experienced, and “sad” because I was sorry that someone else had to suffer that experience. Apparently, for this young woman it was an extremely intense despair that left her feeling that she only had one option. She actually did harm to herself, but this episode had a promising ending. She has declared herself very lucky that someone found her before the self inflicted harm took her life, and got her medical treatment. She is very grateful to be getting a second chance for a good life. She knows it won’t be easy, but is prepared for the battle. I encourage and support her efforts to build a foundation for a healthy future. I know there can be light after the darkness.
Although the three stories of illness were very different, they all had one element in common. They each talked about the embarrassment and stigma that is attached to having a mental health illness. One of the three wrote that she had tried many times to explain her disease to the people around her, but had become frustrated by their lack of understanding and tolerance, and no longer wanted to make the effort. As often as she has told others that her condition is an illness and not a choice, she writes that her friends and family remain clueless, and intolerant and annoyed with her for not getting over “it.” I understand her frustrations. Oh how I understand her frustrations, but she needs to keep talking. She needs to keep explaining, and describing, and defining, and re-explaining. Perhaps one day someone will say, “Ahhhh! I’m beginning to understand.” If she touches one person, helps one person begin to grasp the depth and breadth of mental health issues a bit more clearly, then she will have taken an incredibly meaningful step forward towards opening that teeny tiny closet in which many of us are stuck.
How do we help people understand the depth and breadth of a mental health illness? How do we encourage less silence and more understanding? How do we explain that each different mental health illness carries its own set of challenges? How do we describe the variety of symptoms of mental health illnesses? How do we describe the pain of a mental health illness? How do we spread the word that mental health illnesses are treatable? How do we describe the joy and pride of recovery? How do we become less embarrassed by the words anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, bulimia, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, etc.? How do we get over the embarrassment of these illnesses so we can teach about these issues? The core question is, how do we come out of the closet?
Perhaps it is as simple as just talking. Talk about the issues of your illness, and the ups and downs of a day. Talk about the symptoms, and what it feels like to be so sad that you reflect upon all the good in your life and still cannot smile. Talk about the chemical imbalance that accompanies the illness and prevents you from being able to concentrate or process information. Talk about the difficulties of managing a mental health illness and at the same time raising a family. Talk about the benefits of talk therapy. Talk about the benefits of available medications. Talk about how great it is that so many different effective medications have become available. Talk about how medications have appeared on the scene only fairly recently, and that people in prior times suffered without any hope for medical relief. Talk about how hard that must have been to do. Talk about how good it feels when you start to feel back in balance. Talk about how good it feels to wake up in the morning and know that you will be able to go to the supermarket. Talk about how good it feels to smile from the inside out. Talk about how good it feels to be talking about how good it feels. Just keep talking. No drama. No screaming. No crying. Just a straightforward, matter of fact conversation that might very well go something like this: I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I like mystery novels. I have an anxiety disorder. I see a therapist. I take medication to help me rebalance my system.
Here’s my bottom line. Mental health sufferers need to be the ones to take the first, second, and third steps. WE need to decide to not be embarrassed any longer. WE need to understand that a mental health disorder is no different from any other medical condition. WE need to understand how lucky we are that there are therapists to help us. WE need to understand that we are lucky that there are medications that will rebalance our systems. WE need to own the illness. WE need to do the talking. WE need to come out of the closet.