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.
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.