I found myself having the same conversation on multiple occasions over the last few weeks. The same conversations that I have with colleagues when discussing how to make a greater, more impactful difference in the lives of those suffering from mental illness. The difference was that, these conversations were now being held with people who had little to no knowledge of mental illness, its effects or the statistics of mental health in the very community in which they live. These conversations were now being held with regular people who may or may not have even cared what I had to say, but who had somehow been impacted by mental illness in ways it appeared, they didn’t even recognize.
Before I dive deep into what I will go ahead and tell you, is a call to action, let me say this… It is so hard to be a mental health professional in the world we currently live in. From my point of view, if the world was split into three sections, it would seem like, part of the world is skeptical of the reality of mental illness, while another part chooses to ignore it completely and the final part chooses to attribute everything to mental illness. There are so many misconceptions, misunderstandings and just plain our falsehoods that present as a challenge for those of us working in the field as well as being advocates of the field.
With that being said, I want to begin, over the next few weeks, opening up dialogue and discussing some of the things that I have noticed in relation to mental health. I will start with what I know is one of the most challenging things for people to grasp. That is the truth that Mental Illness is not normal.
I can’t count how many times I have spoken with families of loved ones who committed suicide, people who are now living with depression, bi polar, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, and in the mist of conversing with them or their families, I begin to recognize the fact that the person in question had been dealing with mental illness long before it became a big enough problem for the world to take notice.
While I don’t wont to overwhelm you with statistics in this initial post of this series, I do want to make mention that currently, somewhere close to 50% of individuals who have a diagnosable mental illness, are not receiving treatment. In any given year, about a quarter of the population will suffer from some form of mental illness, and in many cases, people suffer, unnecessarily with symptoms of mental illness that could be easily treated.
The problem is that we so often mistake clear symptoms of mental illness for normal phases of life. While life does bring on its challenges, there is a fine line between a phase of life and experiencing symptoms of mental illness. I can’t count how many times I have heard people say things like, “Johnny, he hasn’t been the same since grandma Susie died,” or “That’s just crazy uncle Jim, always drunk swearing he hears voices,” or “Sally, she is just going through puberty, she will get over her emotions,” or “Timmy is just experiencing his terrible twos, threes, and then fours.”
We tend to make up excuses for mental illness and we write them off as normal. The problem with this is that they are not normal. In fact, they are far from it. When we fail to recognize mental illness for what it is, we open up the door for things such as mass shootings, suicides and murder- suicides. While there may be many reasons that we may overlook someone else’s or our own mental illnesses, some of the most common reasons why we overlook them are, lack of knowledge, fear of feeling or being seen as weak, or fear of loss, such as losing a job.
The reality is that lack of knowledge is something that can be easily fixed. It’s part of the reason I started this blog… you know, to educate others on mental illness. Now fear of feeling or being seen as weak, is one that I am finding is beginning to be addressed more commonly. Many organizations are making it their business to raise awareness and encourage people to overcome the stigma of mental illness. While this is definitely a work in progress, I’m seeing dialogue more recently that I never saw before and it’s helping. Now, when it comes to the fear of loss, such as losing a job I will charge you with this. An untreated mental illness is far more likely to cause you to suffer loss in your life than a treated one. Take it how you want it. The reality is that, mental illness needs to be addressed.
So over the next few weeks, I will be breaking down some of the most common mental illnesses and giving you the knowledge you need to recognize when someone or yourself may be suffering from a mental illness and what actions you can take to get them or yourself help. As I do so, I encourage you to quit ignoring the signs of mental illness. Regardless of how you may view mental illness, the truth is that it is real and it effects the lives of so many. We have a responsibility to the people we love to make sure that we are well and to seek to help them get well, even if that means seeking to help them get treatment for a mental illness they may not recognize that they have.
In this moment I am reminded of the Good Samaritan in the Bible book of Luke. If you are familiar with that parable, then you are familiar with the Good Samaritan being the only one to stop and acknowledge and help the man who had been attacked and robbed after others had passed the man and refused to stop and care. I can only imagine that if instead of being attacked and robbed, the man had been there on the side of the road with clear signs of mental illness, then many of us would be like those who just passed by and ignored what was going on with him. The problem is that when we do this, we fail to be who we are called to be and we fail to live a life of compassion. We get so caught up in our own lives, not even recognizing how ignoring the mental health of someone else can greatly impact our lives (Such as in the instance of mass shootings).
Trust me, I understand that the struggle is definitely sometimes real, but the goal is to overcome every mental encounter and together we can do that! I charge you to begin to pay more attention to the people around you. Ask them if they are okay and truly seek to hear and understand their response. Encourage those who may need help to seek that help, and if it is you, don’t be afraid to ask seek help for yourself. You could be completely wrong about someone having a mental illness, but look, in the times that we are living in… it’s better to be safe than sorry.