The Reality of Living With Mental Illness
Hopeless, misunderstood, unstable, horrendous, lonely, confusing, sickness, horrible, powerless, difficult, afflicted, unpredictable, exhausting, depression, anxiety, postpartum, drowning, invisible, struggle, debilitating, scary, trash, crippling, sucky, empty, hell, wearisome, painful, complicated, tough, shame, failure, guilt, time bomb.
I asked fifty people to summarize their mental illness using one word. Their answers brought tears to my eyes. It is impossible for one to understand what mental illness feels like if they have never experienced the disease themselves. So just imagine, waking up and feeling just one of those things from the second you wake up until your brain finally allows you to fall asleep at night. Imagine dragging yourself out of bed day after day, knowing you have a life to get to–yet also knowing that you’ve got to face an illness that seems to have a hold on your every thought and action. You know you have to function, but you also know that surviving is your biggest task of the day. Imagine the loneliness that accompanies this battle. I often describe my own sickness as being a prisoner to my brain. You know those nightmares where you scream, but no one hears you? Or the one where you’re drowning, but no one is there to pull you out of the deep, dark waters? That is what living with mental illness is like.
According to the World Health Organization,
“One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. Treatments are available, but nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help from a health professional.” (https://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/)
In my mind, fighting the pandemic of mental illness is just as important as the Covid-19 pandemic we are currently dealing with. Why aren’t mentally ill people seeking the help they need and deserve if it is such a miserable thing to go through? Why are people afraid to seek professional help for a disease that is so common? Why doesn’t our society recognize the severity of this illness, or better yet, why do so many people fail to consider it a legitimate disease at all? The answer to all of these questions can be found in the stigma surrounding mental illness. It is an extremely frustrating problem that needs to be fixed. The WHO also states that “where there is neglect, there is little or no understanding. Where there is no understanding, there is neglect.” Let that sink in for a second. What a profound statement. The stigma has created a huge and unfair obstacle for people who suffer from mental illness. It has also created a barrier and misunderstanding between those who suffer from it and those who don’t.
I asked the same fifty people to share one thing they wish others knew about mental illness. I would like to share a few of their responses with you:
Mental illness isn’t something you can just shut off. It is not a choice or self-caused. People think you can control it, or that you’re faking it for attention. Mental illness can manifest in many ways, and it is different for everyone. Just because a person isn’t sad or quiet, doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering. People think you are lazy if you can’t get out of bed, little do they know how exhausting it is to conceal a mental illness. So many people associate mental illness with crime. I am not a criminal because my mind is unwell. Society isn’t arranged to support the mentally ill, instead, I am often seen as less of a person. Taking medicine does not make me an addict. People think that mental illness is not a real sickness because you cannot see it, or touch it.
This is some heavy stuff. Because of all of these things, people would rather cover it up than deal with it. It’s no wonder people are ashamed to reach out for help.
Of the fifty people surveyed, all but one felt that mental illness should be discussed more openly. (The one person said it shouldn’t because culturally, it wasn’t acceptable. He was taught that it is more dignified to deal with it on his own and that seeking help or talking about it just wasn’t something they do.) Forty-nine people said yes. They want to be heard. They want help. They want to be understood.
So what can YOU do to help overcome the stigma surrounding mental health? Here are some thoughts. Try not to question one’s illness, or make assumptions about them. Treat them as you would any other person struggling with a physical illness. Don’t make them feel weak for seeing a therapist, or for taking medication to function. Don’t tell them that they have chosen this or that they’re crazy. I can promise you that no one would choose to live in such a way. Validate their feelings. Be there for them. Encourage them to seek professional help. Talk about it openly and positively. Take some time to learn more about mental illness.
To those struggling with mental illness, I see you. You are so brave to wake up to this battle every day. Please do not give up!