Breaking The Taboo Of Mental Illness

Dear Brandon, I live with mental illness; specifically, bipolar disorder. I am a member of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and my chapter is NAMI Dakota county.  

Dad and I share caregiving duties for my mom. She was diagnosed in 2011 with Alzheimer’s. I attend a support group for Caregivers of Loved Ones with Alzheimer’s – a group through DARTS.

Reader Andrea emailed me the above words in response to my post last week about the mental health concerns in the US.

Reader Chad emailed as well:

Thank you for carrying the banner of mental illness. It impacts so many lives, and is only now starting to get the attention of the public. It has impacted our lives dramatically, and only through the grace of God, and some talented, committed mental health professionals did our daughter survive her crisis.

Inspired by these responses, I’m writing this week about the difficulty talking about mental illness. Mental Health Awareness Week (October 2-8) may be past, but it doesn’t mean the struggle to cope with (and talk about) mental illness goes away.

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It having to do with the human brain, mental health is already complicated enough. We don’t need any more roadblocks in helping victims better their lives. Yet there is such a roadblock, a social dismissal of mental illness sufferers and a self-censorship of those inflicted. In short, a taboo.

Like a magnet’s invisible force keeping two magnetized poles from contacting one another, taboos are invisible forces keeping humans from acting in certain ways by acknowledging the resulting judgement when doing so.

A friend recently shared his experience admitting his alcoholism years ago–the shame he felt and the gratitude for anonymous support groups. He even went by a fake first name. “Call me Larry,” Lloyd said he had said to the group.

I’m sure the phenomenon of taboos is born from a healthy need for group cohesion and strength. But like a lot of other “old” behavior reinforcements (such as “fight or flight”), in a modern world we need to regularly reevaluate whether such base reactions are always healthy. In the case of taboos, we can see the US today self-censor and steer conversation to avoid discomfort arisen in response to a number of topics in a number of areas. One such area continues to be mental health.

Yes, we’ve come a long way adding nuance to the discussion and to our understanding of mental health. We also know, though, that Andrea or Lloyd likely wouldn’t share their mental health issues as regularly as one might talk about his/her arthritis.

I acknowledge that concerns such as over-medication and over-diagnosis of mental conditions are warranted. Plus, mental illness isn’t always visible like a physical malady. But these factors don’t undermine the legitimacy of those truly suffering from a brain that veils life in shades that block one’s ability to live freely. And how does one even know they are veiled–that they don’t see the world in a healthy way? Without awareness of others’ experiences and understanding of mental illness, one’s struggle simply seems like it is the way life is. It’s normal.

With more openness about the topic, more people will be able to acknowledge their own veils. And then through the treatments we have available–and simply through the awareness of one’s condition–the stricken won’t be so blindly guided by their affliction. They can conceive of a reality outside the confines of their chemical imbalance. A new possibility is born.

4 Responses

  1. Nicely written piece, Brandon. I’m glad you briefly touched on the “legitimacy” question—it runs to the heart of the stigma behind mental illness. I’d love to read more from you on this topic, especially applying addiction as an “induced” mental illness. Thanks, as always!! – DDM

    1. Thank you, Daniel. Great to hear from you again.

      I don’t think the debate whether addiction (or depression or anxiety) is a legitimate condition will go away anytime soon, because isn’t everyone depressed and anxious at some point? Haven’t we all had too much to drink? Also, we can’t measure these things with a blood test or something. Thus, and adding to the confusion, some people are misdiagnosed.

      The good news is that enough people–and the right people (professionals)–do understand these conditions. So there is much help to be found.

      Addiction, I think, is particularly tricky to understand–even for those who have it–because as you say, it is an induced condition. The person plays a part not in the brain chemistry, but in the wreckage that it can influence by taking that first drug or going to the casino or whatever. Where the responsibility line lies between the condition and the person is a mystery. All we know is that the addict needs to take responsibility for the treatment to work.

  2. Chris

    Sometimes the only way to make sense of my mind is to recognize myself in someone else’s story. As for me, I was raised by rigid, condemning, demanding, verbally abusive parents. I thought my life was normal, unpleasant only because I was a bad kid. But I went to college totally unable to recognize when I was getting into dangerous situations, and an ex-girlfriend carpet-bombed my whole life with lies, and I suffered public disgrace having to walk among people who would glare at me because of the false allegations. I spent twenty years dealing with all that, PLUS the bewildering accumulation of negative experiences that reinforced my irrational belief that I was a terrible person. I inadvertently frightened and hurt people, and seeing evidence that I was not wanted, I retreated and descended into anxiety and depression.

    My point is that because of people’s lack of understanding, and in my experience the true inner goodness I have found in abuse sufferers in communities online, people with mental illness can get so buried in the complications of the illness (like paralyzing anxiety) that it’s hard to even know where to begin. Only by hearing others’ stories – and frankly being humbled and encouraged by their bravery – could I seem to find any way to understand what I was experiencing. I didn’t even realize there was abuse in my childhood until, indignant at others’ identical treatment, I was forced to accept that I had experienced it too. People really need others to be honest and share their stories, and to be welcoming, accepting, and non-judgmental.

    Because I needed so badly to remove that layer of anxiety, I wanted to suggest a book that is currently changing my life, and which I hope will give others some clarity and peace of mind, and the courage to be themselves. The title is understated, but it has been a miracle for me: “Hope and Help for Your Nerves” by Claire Weekes.

    1. Gosh, thanks so much, Chris. I was thinking of asking you about those online communities as I read your words. So I was glad you offered a book that helped with your anxiety. Still, feel free to share those websites:)

      I also appreciated your example of how sufferers of these kinds of mental conditions can have their actions influenced in ways that hurt others, making the afflicted feel even worse about who they are. I think most people misunderstand this, though. So they just see the anxious person who said or did something inappropriate as a “jerk” or whatever.

      In any case, I’m glad you wrote because I think it will encourage others with mental illness who read it. I’m sorry about your past that shaped your veil. I’m thrilled to hear you’re uncovering it!

What say you?