There is a wonderful, important organization here in the U.S. called the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. NAMI’s primary goal is to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness. One way they battle stigma is their coordination of Mental Illness Awareness Week, during the first week of October each year. This year’s theme–and it’s so good–is “What People with Mental Illness Want You to Know.”
Got a minute? Put on some soft clothes and settle in.
I am, as you know, part of that “People with Mental Illness” group. And there’s so much we want everyone to know, whether you’re a person who doesn’t have mental illness, a person curious about whether you might be mentally ill, or a person affected by another’s mental illness (basically, all of us).
First off, we want you to know that recognizing our own need for help demanded reflection, honesty, and a laying down of arms. For many of us, it took years to admit that we had a problem. We tried valiantly to fix our symptoms, ignore them, mislabel them, or camouflage them. And those first tentative steps we took toward better health–calling psychiatrists, researching therapists, beginning to read about mental illness, even saying the words “depression,” “anxiety,” or “addiction” out loud–took courage and a willingness to set aside our pride.
We want you to know that receiving the correct diagnosis is a complicated, lengthy process, just as difficult as any physical diagnosis can be. We had to wait–often, not very patiently–for the right doctor, the right therapist, or the right medication to reveal and fine-tune just what we were up against. But we also want you to know that we are not our diagnoses, and it’s less important that we know exactly what pages we belong to in the DSM-5 than that we each have a personal mental profile we can understand and work with.
We want you to know that when we finally received a diagnosis, it often became our secret. Because we’d been steeped in mental illness stigma our whole lives, just like you, we knew that this new label was not something we should share with acquaintances, employers, dates, or even family and friends. So when we were diagnosed, no one put us on the prayer list or started a Meal Train, because mental illness is “just not the kind of thing people talk about.” “Please pray for Joe, who was recently diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia” doesn’t trip lightly off a pastor’s tongue, but maybe it should.
We want you to know that we can’t get rid of our mental illness if we just try hard enough. We’re not pretending. We’re not acting out for attention. We want you to know that medication is not a cop out. It makes it possible for us to use the coping skills that we’re learning and to seek the therapeutic treatment that we need. And we (or I, at least) want you to know that when you recreationally use the medication that we need to be healthy, it’s a slap in the face.
And speaking of medication, we want you to know that even though we understand logically and experientially that we need it, those bottles of pills can feel like anchors around our necks. Every so often, we remember that the main thing standing between us and a nervous breakdown or a lost job or an empty bank account is our medication. That’s a heavy truth and a reality that many of us don’t want to accept.
We want you to know that achieving better mental health is not just a matter of finding the right drug. We make strides psychologically by making dozens of small decisions each day. We leave parties early so we can stick to our sleep plan. We reconsider that second cup of coffee, glass of wine, or donut. (Well, some of us reconsider the second donut.) We choose not to watch violent movies, we get offline, and we don’t volunteer for the bake sale because we’re already overtaxed. It’s hard for us not to give in, so please respect our choices. Be proud of us for taking our mental health into our own hands!
We want you to know that when we’re incapacitated by anxiety, depression, obsessions, or suicidal ideation, we cannot and should not go to work, but we believe we have to make up a physical illness in order to legitimize our absence. The notion of mental health days is only beginning to gain some traction, and only at more progressive companies. Knowing we shouldn’t disclose our condition only serves to exacerbate our symptoms, and often you won’t find out about our disorder until we reach a point of crisis, when it’s no longer possible to hide it. We have nothing to feel guilty, lazy, or irresponsible about, and we need the workplace to stop treating us as if we do.
We want you to know that our experiences with regard to mental illness can be incredibly frightening, for us and our loved ones. We might have a panic attack and think it’s a heart attack. We might lie in the dark for days and swear we’ll never get up again. We might hear voices coming from the TV, but the TV’s not even plugged in. So what we need you to do is not to lump us in with your stereotyped ideas about mental illness, but to recognize our humanity. We are human beings who suffer, just as you do, and sometimes we feel like the monster is within us.
For those of us with supportive family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors, we want you to know how much we cherish you. We know that being a part of our orbit isn’t always a picnic. Sometimes it’s more like getting stuck in the window seat next to a drunk salesman who talks too loudly and keeps lobbing muffled farts at you on a plane that never lands. And yet, you never jump out of the window! In all sincerity, THANK YOU.
For those of you who don’t quite feel brave enough to seek answers and treatment, we want you to know that there is the possibility before you of a healthier, less burdensome future. The journey toward better mental health is not easy. It’s not just a matter of finding the right pill or going to a one-and-done therapy session. It has no end point: You will never wake up one day and be cured of mental illness. But you can experience significant relief. If your loved one was suffering, you’d want them to seek help, and you’d do whatever was in your power to alleviate their pain. Please be compassionate and treat yourself as someone worthy of love and assistance.
Perhaps most importantly, we want you to go learn more about mental illness! Read a memoir. Visit nami.org (National Alliance on Mental Health) or apa.org (American Psychological Association) or nimh.nih.gov (National Institute of Mental Health). Find an AA meeting that’s open to the public. Ask questions of the people you know with mental illness. Don’t let your education begin and end with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I’m sure I’ll think of more things we want you to know throughout the week. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, yell “Mental illness! Mental illness! Mental illness!” at the top of your lungs. See? Just saying it takes some of the stigma away. 🙂