Here is a thought. Until we can see ourselves in the mentally ill we will not stand up and fight for better care, increased awareness, and greater funding. As long as we stand to one side and not recognize that we are all vulnerable, that mental illness can happen to any one of us, we will not find the will or the resources to help those in our community suffering with mental illness.
Perhaps a reason that mental illness holds stigma is that because so many of us are secretly afraid of being afflicted, we cling onto “normal” like a life-raft, hoping that the insistence that we are doing great, that we are perfectly normal, will protect us from ever drowning in mental chaos. Our society is very attached to the idea of healthy and unhealthy, sick and ill, normal and mentally ill. What if this isn’t really the way it is? What if we were to acknowledge that there is a continuum of mental health and that none of us is mentally totally well, and none of us is completely mentally ill.
A person suffering from multiple, severe mental illness is very much a person and their disease is not everything about them. Cancer is not the only important thing to know about a person who has cancer, why do we make mental illness everything about a person? Most of us unwillingly accept that at anytime we could have an accident, we can be afflicted with a disease, and we can develop cancer. Most of us are unwilling to acknowledge that we can also become mentally ill.
A mental illness can develop quickly; it can be a change a chemistry, a traumatic event, a relentless serious of stressors, all these can push us towards a full-blown mental illness.
I have seen it happen to people I love. A relative, a lover, a best friend. Chances are you won’t go through your whole life without having a loved one seek help for a mental illness. How will you love and care for them during this time, how will your own attitudes about mental illness affect someone you care deeply about? I know that the more I have been around mental illness the more I have challenged my own pre-conceived beliefs about the mentally ill. I have come to understand that being mentally ill has nothing to do with weakness, in fact, those who work through and with a severe mental illness are amongst the strongest people I know.
I had the pleasure of speaking to a large group called Peer to Peer Support last week in Orangeville Ontario. The idea is that in order to support someone through their mental illness and addiction you have to have experienced something similar yourself. There is some wisdom here; these people are speaking about hope and resiliency from the perspective of having been on the ground looking up. They were amongst the most honest, open hearted and real audiences I have had the pleasure to address. In every struggle there is something gained.
I have heard Clara Hughes speak about her mental illness as something that lives inside her, maybe we each have a little bit of this, a sadness that we can stay ahead of in our business, a rage that we can control through exercise, a potential eating disorder that somehow manages to not become a full blown eating disorder. Where is the line between any one of these and a full-blown mental illness? When is the moment where something manageable becomes unmanageable? Sometimes it’s our chemistry, sometimes it’s our history, sometimes it’s our support system, and sometimes it is a self-care regime.
Thinking about mental illness from this perspective has made me more passionate about speaking out against the injustices in our system towards the mentally ill; it has helped me find my voice to speak out in the hope of reducing stigma and normalizing conversations about mental illness. The more time I have spent with people who have a mental illness, the more I recognize how connected we all are. I have sometimes played down the challenges I have had with depression and anxiety: even to those I most love. I speak about these things in the past tense.
When I look more deeply though, I recognize that these things are never far from the surface, that a series of events could take me back to where I was ten years ago, that I will probably always have this as part of who I am. It is difficult to recognize this, it makes me feel vulnerable, and it makes me one of those people who live with a mental illness.
When we know someone has a mental illness, we treat them differently, we see them differently. This is what stigma is, it is thinking things about people we know nothing about, it is making assumptions about people that have no basis in face, it is choosing to distance ourselves because at some level we are uncomfortable with who they are.
Our will to help those individuals in our community who suffer from mental illness changes the day we recognize our own vulnerabilities and see ourselves in the mentally ill.
With this, I leave you with a poem:
He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout,
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in.