When I was a kid and I got physically sick, there was always an obvious cause. It didn’t matter if I had a cold, a headache, or I was suffering an asthma attack; by the end of the twentieth century, science and technology had come so far that we no longer had to guess what caused our maladies. I could simply tell my parents what was wrong, and within a few seconds they could ascertain exactly what was wrong with me, no matter what.
Demons. It was always demons.
And because of that, I’m going to take a wild guess here; the fact that in the twenty-first century there are still millions (billions?) of people that can use an iPhone and not think it’s magic but get sick and not think it isn’t magic pretty much explains why we are still so far behind with our perception and handling of mental illness.
So here, as simply as possible, is how we (all of us) need to start conditioning ourselves to better understand what exactly mental illness is. Stop thinking of it as a mysterious boogeyman, and start thinking of it the same exact way we (those of us that don’t blame demons for papercuts, that is) think of physical illness.
When you say “physical illness” out loud, do you immediately think of a crushing worst-case terminal scenario? Probably not. I could probably get ten different answers by asking ten different people. But switch it and say “mental illness” out loud. I’m guessing there would be quite a few people who would immediately think of a person in a straight jacket, or a “crazy guy stabbing someone,” or they may just get shivers and push the thought out of their minds altogether. That has to stop.
Mental illness has a spectrum, just like physical illness has a spectrum. The illness could be mild – you could be feeling “blah,” just like you could have a scrape on your knee. It could be situational – you may deal with depression brought on by hard times, just like you might tweak your back at the gym. It could be chronic – you struggle with bipolar, or you have an ankle that never healed properly after a bad sprain. We have to neutralize the phrase “mental illness.” We have to kill the fear those two words strung together have been naturalized to evoke.
Of course, a major part of the reason we’re so far behind is because it’s been a lot easier a lot longer to look at a papercut and discern its cause. Again, at least for most of us. We still have no easy way of looking into the brain and understanding cause and effect. But that doesn’t make the brain any less subject to those same rules. It’s complex, and amazing, and still mysterious, but we are making strides as technology advances. But it’s on us to help. To help shatter the stigma, to help bring the conversation out from the shadows, to help ourselves.
A personal story. I moved across the country and away from my home and everything I knew at twenty-three. From the sunny and dull monotony of suburban Florida to the dark and rainy but exciting big city of Portland, Oregon. It was as drastic of a change as I could make and still be in the U.S. When the rush of the first year wore off and my brain had to settle back into reality and face that reality, I had a total breakdown. I sunk into a massive depression, began having panic attacks and paranoia, and had my stability shattered by (then undiagnosed) OCD.
At the worst, I only worked three hours a night in a dark room by myself (which did me no favors) as a radio personality, sleeping until 8pm and then coming home and sitting on my hands in the corner of my apartment with all the lights on, terrified I would cut or gouge my own eyes out. Some moment near dawn I would pass out, exhausted. I had hidden all the sharp objects (which is as ridiculous as it sounds, considering I knew the hiding places seeing as how I was the hider) in my home, and refused to walk near roads or children, convinced I would either throw myself or a child in front of a bus.
After a month of that hell, I somehow gathered the strength to look up mental health providers with the insurance provided from my job (no idea what I would have done if I didn’t have insurance, but that’s a note for another time), and somehow gathered the strength to make an appointment and show up. I sat, terrified, and told the small bespectacled man across from me exactly what was going on, and how scared I was, and how I thought I was going crazy. His words to me, “We may have to hospitalize you,” tripled my anxiety levels.
I walked into the radio station that night confused and scared and far more afraid from the stigma than happy I was getting help. I didn’t know what to say except the truth. Talking about the latest music news seemed so trite to me that I couldn’t force myself to do it. The end of a Metallica song trailed off and I cracked my mic and did my nightly introduction and said I was scared. I had had a breakdown. My life was crumbling, and in a way I couldn’t understand. I talked about the crazy things I thought I was doing, and how I had walked into the therapist’s office and was told he may have to hospitalize me, and how that had made me more scared than sitting on my hands all night had. I said if anyone else was listening, and if they could relate, they could call up and we could talk. Because I just didn’t know what else to do.
My bank of phone lines lit up and never went dark. I had teenage boys calling and crying and saying they were going through similar things and didn’t know what to do. I had middle aged men telling me they had been living with mental illness for decades and had never told a soul. I talked to dozens of people, mostly male, and it never let up. I never had a night before or after with that many calls, not even when giving away huge prizes. I told the people I talked to I didn’t really have any answers, but if I found anything out, I’d announce it on the air. Thankfully, I had doctors call up and share resources, which I turned around and shared in the few moments I had between Disturbed and Stone Temple Pilots.
That was over a decade ago, and I feel perceptions have changed for the better. But not by much, especially in some social circles – like any place where a “man should be a man.” And so I won’t idly sit by and “hope things get better.” I’ll bring up mental illness and talk about it and normalize the discussion as much as possible. And I believe it starts with the understanding – the re-conditioning – that mental illness needs to be perceived the same way we perceive physical illness; caused entirely by demons shooting little demon darts into us because we’re sinning. Just kidding.
That mental illness is just as normal and common and wide-ranging and complex and potentially curable and manageable as physical illness. And that we must work harder to break the stigma, and that when we do talk about these things in the open, it does make a difference. Truly.