There are approximately 1 in 4 people living with a mental illness worldwide. Think of that. It’s a huge number. And yet, I bet you’d have trouble naming more than one person in your life who has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
In 2015, discussions about mental health are still often done in whispers behind closed doors. “Don’t let them hear you” is something I’ve been told before. I’ve been hushed. I’ve been told the topic is inappropriate. I’ve been threatened to be “outed” about my history of mental illness (of which I speak and write about a lot, so I’m not sure what their goal was).
I’ve been told a lot of things about mental illness in my life. That it’s a choice. That I can control it. That kids and teens can’t have it. That I don’t look like someone with it. More recently, I was laughed at when I told someone I had ADHD, they then followed up with telling me only teenagers “get it” (it’s a communicable disease apparently), and women can’t ever have it. I’ve been called oversensitive, selfish, ridiculous, and so on. Other loved ones with mental illness have been called dramatic, bored, and disruptive. (Thankfully, my family has always been nothing short of supportive.)
I feel strongly the reason so many suffer, often without treatment, is because we don’t talk about it. I don’t tell you what therapies or medications have worked for me. You don’t share what coping skills you can’t live without. We don’t open our arms and say, “I accept you.”
No one brings you chicken soup when you’re depressed. I’ve been part of community groups and have seen others’ involvement in their church groups. There is usually a call for meals or crocheting blankets or visits for those who are ill. Cancer comes up a lot, and other chronic physical illnesses, as well as when someone has had a baby. I’ve never heard a request made to bring meals to someone who just left rehab. Or to check in on someone who just changed their prescription. How welcome a small reminder of love it might be to receive a handmade, cozy blanket while laying in the ER at 3 A.M. as your world collapses beneath you. (Robot Hugs has created several perfect comics addressing much of this.)
Some people will laugh at the idea of people reaching out in these scenarios. Well of course, who would share that they just left rehab or that they take psychiatric drugs?
That is the problem. Why don’t we? Why is there still stigma? Why do we fear losing our jobs, freaking out our partners, having our kids taken from us? We stay silent. We know that if we say “I have anxiety and OCD,” “I am bipolar,” etc. that instantly people will assume to know everything about us. We suddenly become unreliable, unstable, and even unlikable.
How do we change this? Well, the first step is for people like me who can come out and speak about their mental illness, to do just that. I’ve been talking about it for years, and in the fields I work in, it’s not really an issue. So I can speak out, without fear of being blacklisted. The more each of us speak out, we can change minds. People will see real, actual people with mental illness, and not the often cringe-worthy portrayals of us on television and in movies.
From there, I hope others with mental illness can step forward, without worry of reprisals. Collectively, we can be so powerful that we can change how society treats us, how the media reports on us, how caretakers and hospitals deal with us, and how insurance companies value (or often harm) our health.
This week, John Oliver brilliantly observed all that is wrong with our system and how we treat those with mental illness in this country. You don’t have insurance coverage. Or the coverage you have only covers 30% of care that costs $1000 per day. Or your therapist doesn’t accept any insurance. Or you have coverage, but they’ll only allow you to stay inpatient for 48 hours. The hurdles someone with mental illness has to go through to have their care and medication covered are inhumane. We have to fix that.
We also need to get help to people before they are suicidal or living on the streets or addicted to substances. We wait until it is a dire emergency to take our heads out of the sand and say, “Oh! I guess you need a psych eval!” What other disease or disorder in the world is treated like that? Let’s wait until cancer has nearly killed you before looking at chemo as an option. Let’s hold off until your arteries are clogged enough that you may have a heart attack at any moment before we intervene. Let’s wait until your lung functioning is at 10% before we treat your asthma.
With the number of suicides happening each year, how can you say we are not in crisis? We desperately need to change this conversation.
So, what you can you, a family member, friend, or professional do to help? Just that, ask how you can help the person. Send them a text message. Mail them a card. Bring them chicken soup, or McDonald’s, or whatever else you know they’d like. Send them a care package. Listen to them.
Be present. Don’t pull back because you are scared or confused or you don’t know what to say. It is perfectly fine to tell us you wish you knew what to say. We get it. Just be here. I know for me, a lot of times, I don’t want you talk. I don’t even want to talk. My head gets so distorted and full of thoughts, I just want to watch a show and forget it all. Or play a video game and be someone else for awhile.
Don’t look at me like I’m weak. I’m not. I’m tougher than most people, don’t ever let mental illness make you think someone is not strong as hell. Respect all the work I put into addressing my mental health needs.
Don’t belittle people with mental illness. From dealing with insurance companies to showing up for therapy appointments to dealing with nasty side effects of medication to trying to care for yourself each day, getting through life with mental illness usually requires a ton of effort. Don’t ever disparage those efforts. You may not ever understand why, when your friend is having a rough spell, they cannot cook for themselves or don’t brush their hair. You don’t have to understand, just know that your friend would be doing those things if it were easy. And know that they probably shame themselves enough for not being able to do that stuff, so you can hold your judgment at the door.
Bring me chicken soup, ask if I want a hug, and build me a blanket fort. When I feel stronger, write letters, make phone calls, and shout into the megaphone along with me. Be there for the people in your life. Fight alongside them for better care and greater access to that care. Let your friends, family, and co-workers/employees know that you support and accept them. Open up a dialogue today.