Today is World Mental Health Day. It is a time to educate ourselves, a time to take care of ourselves, a time to end the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. I have a personal stake in this since I have my own history (and present) with mental illness.
Off and on through my adolescence and adult life I have had bouts of clinical depression. Clinical depression is NOT the “I’m sad and need to have a good cry” kind, but the “can’t get out of bed,” “can’t stop crying,” “don’t want to live anymore” kind. I’ve been saved by medication and HARD work in therapy.
Why the stigma? I think because it’s an internal illness. You can’t SEE it, except when someone’s had a break with reality and is acting out. There is no blood test for it. You can’t diagnose it with a blood pressure cuff. It doesn’t show up in urine, there is no hearing test. For all the great medical knowledge we have about how the body functions and malfunctions, we know SO VERY LITTLE about the brain. The medications that have been developed to treat mental illness are still mysterious – some work for some people, they don’t work for others. And sometimes what works for a person will stop working after a while and medications need to be shifted.
Many types of mental illnesses are also FEELING centered. It is only fairly recent in history that we humans really care about feelings. You don’t have to go back very far to find that “just getting through the day” and “doing what you have to do to get by” were the things that mattered. How we felt about things was relatively unimportant. People worked too hard to think about their lives. Those who suffered breaks with reality were shipped off to “hospitals” – really just holding pens. Treatment then is seen as barbaric now. Often these folks were never seen again. This was sadly also true for anyone who was mentally “defective,” including those with Down’s Syndrome, the physically handicapped, or those who were called “mentally retarded.” Of course this is a massive generalization, but for many people, even in my own grandparents’ generation this was true.
We know so much better now. We know MOST people with mental illnesses can be productive members of society. We know there are treatments that actually HELP. But history still weighs on us. The history that wants to hide weaknesses of any kind, physical or psychological. The history that still creeps up on those with depression when they’re told to just “snap out of it.” The history that leads insurance companies to pay nicely for my medication but pays for a disgustingly small portion of my therapy (just dope a person up, but not pay for the help they need to work on their long-term ability to cope).
The stigma needs to stop, because it serves no good purpose. It keeps people from receiving the treatment they need. It allows people to stay stuck in archaic ideas. It allows insurance companies to not pay for therapy on the same scale at which they’ll pay the cardiologist. I live with depression. I take medication. I receive therapy. Because of that I am able to care well for my children, hold down a job and pay taxes. My psychiatric diagnosis doesn’t define me, but it is a part of me. I am not ashamed of it. I am anyone you see on the street, in the grocery store or at the gym.
For more information about World Mental Health Day, visit the World Health Organization’s link here.