This is something that I have found myself struggling with for a really long time now. I am classified as having a “mental illness”. I got diagnosed. A lot. Plenty of labels have been stuck on me. I am mentally ill. But what exactly does that say?
I have no ready answer to that, so I’ll just think out loud instead.
Most of all it seems to say that something is wrong with me. And the term illness suggests that maybe I should be quarantined, separated, put into bed, treated and cured, if possible. That’s what you do with ill people after all. But then, it’s not any old regular illness. It’s a mental illness. Sick in the head. And ooooh, wait, that could be dangerous. Surely it’s debilitating. Could it also be catching?
“Children, quick, come inside, stay away from that girl! Damnit, Jenny, don’t touch her! Her brain has got cooties! Do you want to go crazy, too?!”
While being a little bit loopy, eccentric or dramatic can be quite modern or fashionable, being properly mentally ill is a different story, just like it is one thing to add an ostrich feather to your hat, and quite another to have the whole ostrich tagging along.
With having a proper mental illness there comes stigma and prejudice. And while people consider it offensive to accuse a paraplegic of laziness for carting around in a wheelchair, or a deaf person of willfulness for not coming when called, many people have no such inhibitions when it comes to mental illness. Here are a couple of the prejudices I have personally encountered, that people were not shy to voice.
The mentally ill live off the honest men’s taxes.
The mentally ill are dangerous and violent.
The mentally ill are lazy / over-indulged / selfish / …
The mentally ill are irrational and should not be listened to.
The mentally ill are retarded / deranged / crazy/ …
The mentally ill should get locked away.
The mentally ill don’t know what REAL problems look like.
The mentally ill are abnormal.
The mentally ill should never be trusted.
There is very little true understanding around about what mental illness really means. Which I find a really sad thing, especially bearing in mind that what, one out of every four, six or ten people is believed to have mental health issues? And if that is so, is it really such an abnormal thing? I think not. And I think an improved understanding of what mental illness is would be very becoming.
Here’s what I think mental illness is:
Mental illness is an umbrella term. It’s devoid of any particular meaning beyond saying “this person is struggling with a longer-term condition that causes psychological distress”.
Mental illness is involuntary. Sure, there can be secondary benefits to mental illnesses. But I doubt anyone would choose those over the benefits of being psychologically healthy if the latter was a true option for them.
Mental illness is an amplification of normal conditions, which everyone should at least to some degree be able to relate to. It’s not some otherworldly, alien or devilish ‘thing’, but just very severe and intense versions of stuff everyone knows. Yes, even the weird and grotesque looking crap. Even stuff like delusions and hallucinations. Or have you never, not even briefly, thought you’d heard or seen something that ended up being just a trick of your mind?
Mental illness is often the reflection of shit the person has had to figure out to live with somehow, not a genuine trait of the person. Kind of like that: if I taped a pin, point up, under the sole of your foot, you’d pretty darn quickly learn to limp without putting pressure on the pin. And after limping long enough you might even grow so used to limping that you’d still limp, even if I removed the pin. It wouldn’t be you having a physical disability, just your familiar and safe way to walk. Your muscles would have developed accordingly and therefore you’d probably have a hard time suddenly walking “like a normal person” again. Mental illness is similar. Except you often can’t even see or recall the stuff it developed as a reaction to as clearly as you can see a pin. Which means that often the person with a mental illness will not even know why some things are so difficult, why she is reacting this or that way, or why she can’t just behave “normally”.
Mental illness is different for everyone. Just as working for company X is probably a little different for every single employee. There are different kinds and severities of mental illness, just like there are different fields of work in company X. And even two colleagues who share the same workspace can have a fundamentally different experience, just like two people who suffer from the same mental illness can. So don’t assume to know what it’s like for someone else. Not even if you are a doctor, shrink or therapist and have seen plenty of people with the same condition already. Despite the possible similarities, it’s still a unique experience for everyone.
Mental illness can and should be understood. Because it is an amplification and sometimes distortion of the “normal” experience, it can be very confusing or grotesque looking. Most of all for the person who has it, but also for others. Yet whatever the symptoms, they usually are meaningful, because humans generally don’t pick their behavior at random by spinning their lucky action wheel of fortune. Since it isn’t random, it can be understood. It is also worth understanding. Yes, even the weird stuff. Because often it will stop seeming so weird once you come to understand it. So instead of marveling with an open mouth in wonder or horror or disbelief, try to understand what’s going on. It helps.
That’s all I can think of at the moment, and I’m sure there is more. But at least it’s a start. I’ll add more if I can think of more. I’ll be happy if you share your thoughts on the subject, too!