For years now, 4 out of the 5 members of my household have struggled, in one way or another, with a mental health issue. I won't go into detail about which family member deals with which thing. That's personal & I will always strive to protect my family's dignity and safety. If you know our family personally, you may know the details. (And if so, please do not comment here with any specifics. Join me in protecting our family!) Or you may know us & have NO IDEA that we've been dealing with anything at all. (If so, surprise!)
As I type this tonight, I am looking back on the past 20 years of having one psychiatric drug or another in my medicine cabinet. Sometimes I've had a combination of several drugs in my medicine cabinet. I have heard people compare mental health to other chronic illnesses-- diabetes or asthma, for example-- and they have talked about the similarities. Both require long-term medications, continual care by a doctor, potentially a hospitalization now & then to get back on track when things go awry, and taking care of oneself to prevent those "flare ups". There is so much truth in all of that and I can appreciate the comparisons.
But here's the kicker: no one looks at you funny if you have diabetes. No one judges you if you have asthma. No one thinks a person with Crohn's disease is a monster or somehow dangerous. No one assumes that a person with Cystic Fibrosis is apt to 'snap' and hurt someone. There is no stigma attached to most chronic illnesses. But there IS to persons who deal with mental illness.
Why is that?
We all understand when a person has a heart problem that their heart is 'sick'. We all understand that diabetes means a person has a 'sick' pancreas. We know that having asthma means having 'sick' lungs. So why can't we accept that mentally ill people have a 'sick' brain? Why can we understand that those conditions are medical in nature but we look at mental illness as some other sort of thing altogether. Why can't we as a society see that mental illness is just as much an illness, too?
The definition of mental illness I most often relate to people is a condition where the chemistry of the brain gets out of whack. I know it is much more complicated than that, including all sorts of genetic, environmental, and biological factors. And the conditions that fit the mental illness category are as diverse as can be, but most are classified by how they affect a person's mood, behavior and thinking. With all of them, you see a doctor, do testing before a diagnosis, take meds to help with the problem and go on about your life. None of these conditions were ones the person asked for. None of them are the person's fault or were somehow 'caused' by a bad choice. None of them were planned for or desired. Most of the people affected have zero desire to spend their life in doctor's offices or taking a handful of medication every day....
You know, JUST LIKE those who have diabetes, asthma, cystic fibrosis, crohn's and all the other chronic illnesses you can think of....
It's time for us to do SOMETHING about this overwhelming, seemingly never-ending thing that people have stuck in their heads about children and adults who have a mental illness. STOP IT. These conditions are very real, very hard to manage sometimes, very hard to 'own' (because of the stigma!), very hard for caregivers and family to support. These conditions are no less medical in nature than all the other chronic illnesses I mentioned here.
I'm not sure I ever REALLY grasped all this before I was faced with it myself. But, being face to face with individuals who are fighting daily to stay on top of their illness, I can tell you one thing for sure:
These persons are fully capable of living normal lives, looking just like you, going to school or work, carrying on a regular lifestyle, having successful relationships, embracing physical activities, becoming parents, caring for others, being members of the PTA, serving on the neighborhood watch team, teaching Sunday School and so much more. I doubt you have any idea just how many people you interact with every single day who are dealing with things like anxiety, depression, PTSD, Bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, ADD/ADHD, eating disorders, PPD, SAD, Disassociative Disorders, phobias and on & on & on.
Seriously, let's put this 'second class citizen' treatment to rest. A person with mental illness is no less human, no less capable of emotion than anyone else. So dig up your compassion glasses & put them on. It's time to stop the ignorance and the awful stigma. After all, can you tell which of these people suffers from a mental health condition & which do not?