We don't talk about mental illness. We hide it in the back of the closet with the pants we will never fit in again and the sweater from grandma that we feel too guilty to throw away. We shove it in between the hairballs and dust bunnies that have created their own peaceful colony under the bed. We mumble about it between bites at dinner in a barely audible tone that might be confused for a sniffle or a cough. But we don't TALK about mental illness. We pretend as if it doesn't exist in the hopes that it will just go away.
However, like every other affliction of the human body, mental illness does not vacate on its own. In fact, for many, it does not vacate at all. Mental illness is a lifelong reality for people all around you but you wouldn't know it because they aren't allowed to talk freely about their health issue. The stigma carried with the mention of any mental illness whether it's schizophrenia or depression or bipolar disorder relegates the affected ones to a state of less than, not good enough, crazy.
My students use the term "bipolar" the same way we used the word "crazy." It's a word that is funny to them. People toss it around like they do the word gay. "You're so gay." "You're bipolar, Ms. R." Mental illness is a joke.
Unfortunately for a great number of people in the world population, it is not a joke. It is a disease like diabetes or arthritis or high cholesterol or hypothyroidism or GERD which all require daily care and daily medicinal treatment. Yet, we don't look at those who are diagnosed with GERD and tell them to suck it up and get their digestive systems together. We don't whisper behind the diabetic's back, "You know she has d-i-a-b-e-t-e-s..." We talk about it. We encourage others to stay healthy by sharing our stories. We are proud survivors or managers of our diseases UNLESS they are diseases related to our brains.
A few years ago, I was searching for an old, dear friend of mine. We hadn't seen each other since college but he was always on my mind. I reconnected with other mutual friends and acquaintances but I could never find him. I finally stumbled upon some photos of him playing ball overseas and eventually got in touch with his family. I missed him by just over a year. He had committed suicide. My heart was broken. It still is, quite frankly. I often imagine what it would have been like if we had gotten to see each other and talk to each other one more time.
I have a family member who also fights this seemingly impossible battle. The conditions of our nation's mental health institutions are deplorable. They are simply institutions, one step up from prison. In a country where we tout the importance of a balance between physical, mental and emotional wellness, I was horrified to find my family member in a building with no natural light, no windows, no outdoor space, no fresh air, no fitness facilities. They sat in a room full of sick people all day coloring and watching Maury. HOW ARE PEOPLE SUPPOSED TO GET WELL IN THAT ENVIRONMENT?
It is time for us to talk about mental illness, openly and honestly. People don't DO anything to get it. It's a chemical imbalance that for some is temporary and for others lasts a lifetime. Everybody is susceptible. People with mental illness aren't sick because they were bad or irresponsible or broke the law. It just happens. We need to understand, accept and be ok with that. We need to acknowledge the need to develop treatment plans that do not treat the sick like criminals and offer WHOLE HEALTH plans to those who are capable of recovery but have not been given the tools to do it.
Talk. Share your story. Help prevent a suicide. Break down the stigma. Reach out. Hugs don't heal but they help.