You can be the first in your family. That’s what the poster would say. BE THE FIRST IN YOUR FAMILY. The poster would not be suggesting that you be the first person in your family to graduate from high school, attend college, or own the latest invention. The poster’s message would be encouraging you to be the first person in your family to have the courage to acknowledge and seek help for a mental health problem. Obviously you may never know if you are the first in your family to have to face this issue. The only thing you can assume is that no one before you had your courage to acknowledge a mental health problem. Mental illness was a topic that lived deep inside the closet with other family scandals. It lived behind the door, under the photos, and under the old sheets. But it doesn’t need to be buried going forward. YOU can be the first in your family to unveil your truth, and to seek help. YOU can be the first in your family to step beyond any boundaries of shame and begin to educate those close to you. Let them know that you have a mental illness, that it is a medical condition, and that you have stepped up to the challenges that accompany this illness. Let them know that you have decided to no longer live in denial and shame. Let them know that you want to live as good a life as you can, and in order to do that you are taking charge and seeking help. Help is good. Help is helpful. Educate your family. Educate your friends. Educate the community around you. Show them that not withstanding your mental illness, you are successful, and creative, and happy.
Stomp your feet. Bang the drums. Shout from the roof tops. I do believe the conversation about mental health is finally changing. Slowly, people are beginning to talk and write about the mental health world and all of its issues. There are blogs in which people write about their own experiences with a mental health issue. There are blogs that present academic treatises about mental health issues. There are television shows that contain segments about the topic. There are ads on television and in print that speak to the issue of medication that could help someone with a mental health malady. Those ads are right up there with the ads about aspirins, tampax and adult diapers. It is exciting to see the news coverage about mental health. It is exhilarating to read the many articles that are now being written about mental health issues. It is downright fantabluous that people are beginning to talk about their own experiences with mental health issues. Our population is waking up to the fact that mental health issues are a part of the string of illnesses that effect many people. Mental illness is diagnosable and treatable, and it is no different in its essence than diabetes, and therefore should not carry any stigma with its diagnosis. A once verboten subject of conversation, the mental health issue has found its way into our more conventional airwaves and cyberwaves. In short, more people are talking about and thinking about the world of mental health issues.
The Today Show, a very mainstream morning program, covers mental health topics regularly. Whether one watches the program live or heads to the Today Show website, one will find topics about PTSD therapy dogs, men and depression, and the onset of autumn blahs, just to name a few subjects. The topics are treated respectfully, and people are always encouraged to seek professional help if they exhibit any symptoms discussed or have questions. Readers and watchers are also told that mental illness is diagnosable, treatable, and medical in nature. It is not a figment of the mind.
Online, conversations are being started and projects are being initiated with regard to mental health issues. Plug into your browser the words “mental illness stigma” and your search will lead you to a number of sites providing hours of reading. Some of the writing is very academic, but a lot of it is personal. People are openly sharing their challenges with this illness. The resulting knowledge creates better understanding. And the conversation continues to expand every day. Join the conversation. Share your stories. Talk.
Hugh Laurie is a well-known British actor who has struggled with depression for years. Mr. Laurie played the lead doctor on the USA Network television show House. He doesn’t like to talk about his depression, not because he is ashamed of it, but because he doesn’t feel that he has the right to complain about his personal situation inasmuch as he has been so successful in his professional life. Well, Mr. Laurie’s professional success does not have anything to do with his right to complain about his mental health. Speaking personally, I remember when I went through my first bout with anxiety and depression, I felt that I could not complain either. I had a wonderful home, husband, and family, and was otherwise very healthy. I repeated that story to myself over and over. It didn’t help at all. I was still depressed.
When my first bout with depression hit, it was during the summer Olympics of 1996. I remember listening to all the hard-luck stories of the athletes, thinking, “What right did I have to complain?” These athletes had experienced worse challenges than I was experiencing. They had been separated from family, suffered debilitating injuries, lost a parent, or lost a sibling. Over and over I repeated my mantra – “others have it worse – my life is good – others have it worse – my life is good.” But you know what? It did not help. What eventually did help was to seek a solution for myself that would enable me to deal with my own situation. I didn’t need to feel bad that I was feeling bad. At the same time, I realized that everyone has his or her own challenge, and one’s own challenge is a legitimate source of discomfort for that person. Everyone has the right to have his/her own pain. Everyone, rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful, loved or not loved, has a right to feel bad about the difficulty of his/her particular challenge. What is not acceptable is to do nothing about meeting that challenge, and finding a solution to the pain.
Hugh Laurie could potentially be a lot of help if he shared his story. People listen to celebrities and take solace in knowing that famous and successful people also suffer human issues just like the rest of us. The rest of us rationalize that if someone like Hugh Laurie is not immune from depression, then it is okay for us to suffer from depression. Perhaps Mr. Laurie’s candor would encourage other people to seek the help needed for healing and having a better life.