I, as many other people who suffer with some sort of mental illness, carry a sense of shame with me wherever I go. I rarely tell people about my disorder, I am afraid that they will be afraid of me or what I may do. And if I don’t tell them, I am afraid that they will say something offensive about my diagnosis without knowing. Because they have.
“Oh my god that girl has to be mentally ill she is freakin’ crazy.”
Or, sometimes, “People with mental illness just need to get over it.”
“Mental illness can be solved with natural remedies.”
“Mental illness is all in your head.”
Mental illness is “all in your head”. The same way lung cancer is “all in your lungs”. The same way a heart disease is “all in your heart”. And, like lung cancer and heart disease, mental health can and will kill you if not properly treated.
So why are we not properly treating it?
There is no one real answer to this question. But there are four big ones I’d like to explore.
1. There is no “cure” for mental illness, only treatments that can subdue the symptoms. And not every treatment works for every person.
When I first went to my psychiatrist and was diagnosed, he prescribed me with the most common drug used for people with my disorder. The drug did its job, in that I was not having the spells I had before, but it turned me into (for all intents and purposes) a zombie. I remember, it was hard for me to smile. I couldn’t respond to anyone. My voice was monotone. The doctor said that he had never had anyone react in this way to this drug before, but it is very common for people to react to drugs in uncommon ways. Everyone’s chemical makeup is different. He then prescribed me with a lesser known drug in the same family, he warned me that it could make me very sleepy and it might do the same thing the first drug did since it was in the same family. It did not. The drug worked perfectly for me and I have been fine ever since. Many of my friends have similar stories, one in particular went through five different medications until she found one that worked for her. Another never found one that worked, instead, she found that regular sessions with a counselor curbed her symptoms best. So many people don’t seek treatment because we don’t have a definite answer about what will work, they know not everything will work, they are missing the point that something will work.
2. The belief that drugs for mental illness are not a necessity.
I have many friends within the natural health community especially that believe mood swings, depressive states and anxiety attacks can all be improved through meditation, herbal remedies, and therapy. I don’t want to write all of these things off as silly, because they are certainly worth trying in addition to the traditional medical approach to aiding mental illness, or as a substitute in cases that are not particularly severe . However, these methods of treatment are not as effective as the methods modern medicine has given us. Meditation may work wonderfully for a person who struggles with day to day anxiety, but for the person who cannot get out of bed in the morning due to stresses of everyday life, meditation will not help enough. Meditation, used in conjunction with drugs for anxiety, can be a wonderfully helpful supplement on the road to health and a “normal” life. But this view, that depression and other conditions like it, can be solved through natural methods alone is a dangerous one. Suicide, and by logical deduction, depression, was the 10th leading cause of death of Americans in 2011, every 13.3 minutes an American killed themselves (read more about these facts and figures here). The Newtown Shooter, the UCSB shooter, and all the others in between no doubt had undiagnosed mental illness that lead them to their fatal rampages. If only we all treated mental illness the way we treat cancer, as a deadly killer. If only we approached mental illness the way we approach cancer: anything to beat it. Anything to stay alive.
3. The belief that medication for mental illness will “change who you are.”
This is a big one, and sort of ties in with the last. One of my friends was very concerned when I first started taking medication, “be careful!” she said, “I still want you to be Alee! I don’t want it to change you!” But, of course it changed me. That’s what this sort of medicine is supposed to do, change you. It’s supposed to change the fact that you can’t get out of bed in the morning. It’s supposed to change the fact that even when you’re supposed to be happy, you’re sad. It’s supposed to change the extremities of your mood and or anxieties. But it did not change “who I am”. I am still Alee. I am just Alee who gets happy when things are happy. I am just Alee who is awake a lot more of the time. I am just Alee who wants to be alive.
4. Stigma, stigma, stigma.
If someone was in the hospital for liver issues, they would surely tell all of their loved ones and even acquaintances about their medical issues and time in the infirmary. They, or those closest to them, might even post to Facebook, asking for prayers and sympathy. If someone was in the hospital for a suicide attempt, the reaction would be very different. It would be hush-hush. Neither the patient nor the patients family would want any attention for this. No other life threatening illness is treated this way. So why do we treat suicide as if it is a shameful act? Why do we blame the the people with drug or alcohol addictions for said addiction? Why am I so afraid to tell people what the medicine in my cabinet is for? It’s all stigma and misinformation. People with my disorder are often categorized as “crazy”. People who are addicted to cocaine are blamed for going back to it over and over. Who wants to seek treatment for something that people perceive to be your own fault? “Toughen up, resist it. Do it on your own.” The same words echo in the ears of those with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder. Who wants to go to a doctor to be diagnosed as what society has deemed as “insane”? People are never going to seek help if public perception remains the way it is now. Stigma sucks.
Of course, there are so many factors that go into this, and I’m not by any means trying to say that this list is exclusive. Together, as a people, we must work together to remove stigma associated with mental illness.
Because, in the 21st century developed world, the suicide rate should be zero.