The Stigma of Mental Illness

“I wish people could understand that the brain is the most important organ of our body.  Just because you can’t see mental illness like you see a broken bone, doesn’t mean it’s not as detrimental or devastating to a family or an individual.”  – Demi Lovato

Yesterday was Bell’s Let’s Talk day to support mental health awareness.  Although I think anything that attempts to create dialogue about an issue which has been wrought with stigma since the beginning of time, can be seen as a positive step, the title of the day has always bothered me.

I will start out by saying that I have not been diagnosed ever with a mental illness.  However, I have always been plagued with anxiety and worry.  I have had relapses that caused me to withdraw and go within myself for months at a time, so I feel I definitely have an understanding of what it is like to live with this issue to a limited degree.  MS causes lesions in the brain and spinal column.  I have some that become very active in my frontal lobe which wreak havoc on my emotional state.  I also have numerous friends and family who have struggled with mental illness.  According to the CMHA, by the age of 40, 50% of adults in Canada will have or have had a mental illness.  How is it that something so common in society is still so misunderstood and carries such stigma with it?

Something that has always confused me about mental illness is how people who have never dealt with it seem to get a free pass to be insensitive about it.  So many times I heard while I was going through rough times when I was locked inside of my own head, to “just snap out of it” or told “you just need to get outside more.”  If you have never had cancer you still feel empathy for someone who is forced to go through a diagnosis.  We would not tell a cancer fighter to just buck up and get over it.  I don’t know why mental illness is perceived so much differently.  People are often viewed as weak or lazy and unmotivated if they are struggling with mental health issues.

There are two reasons why I feel so passionately about this topic.  The first is that I have been diagnosed and lived with MS  for 19 years now.  I do not enjoy, but have learned to deal with balance issues, vision problems and numbness causing mobility issues for most of my adult life due to my disease.  I could still live my life and managed to work while working through those issues.  However, nothing stopped my life in its track like dealing with anxiety and depression.  Because my mental health problems seem to happen when my MS lesions are active, I can deal with that through steroids and trying to keep my stress level moderate.  I often wonder how different it would be if I did not have something that I knew would help me come out of that scary space.  I have heard many people talk about others with some form of mental illness as being “not very strong.”  As someone who has had periods of depression and anxiety, there is nothing stronger than someone dealing with those demons who does not know when or if it will stop, and still gets up in the morning and has the resilient nature to fight though it when it pops it’s scary head up again in their life.

I do not have many regrets in life because I believe choices we make that end up being far from ideal for our life are there to teach us lessons about ourselves.  However, I do have one strong regret.  I was a school counselor when I was a teacher.  I worked with many students who I needed to contact their parents at times when I was worried about them.  I would reach out to their mothers and fathers to ask then to come in to the school to put our heads together to try to come up with a solution to help their children find success.  Sometimes parents would book appointments to come in and then not show up.  I would get so angry and say “What is wrong with them that they cannot come in to see me to talk about their own child?”  Other times, parents would call in and say they couldn’t come in because they were having a really bad day.  I often had heard from students that their parents were often sad or anxious.  Even knowing that, I would still feel angry at them and think they should come in for the sake of their child.

After having gone through a period like that in my own life now, I feel so much guilt that I didn’t move mountains to wait until parents were in a better place, or even better, try to get them some support, as well as support for their children, on coping strategies to get through these rough times.  I didn’t know what it was like to feel like you have a 500 pound weight on your chest preventing you from moving to go anywhere let alone into a school to do problem solving on how to help your child.

In terms of Bell Let’s Talk, what I really think is needed from my own experiences and talking to many others who struggle with mental illness, is kindness.  I look at the people who helped me the most to get through difficult times.  They were the people who were just able to listen.  All I wanted when I was in that place, was for someone to sit beside me and bare witness to what I was going through.  I didn’t need suggestions for a new diet or a new book to read.  If I was looking for those things, I would ask.  What I really wanted was someone to just come over and listen, or to sit with me in silence while I tried to dig my way back to the surface.  I know it is uncomfortable for people to deal with that space, but it is even more uncomfortable to live in that immensely dark place.

What is needed is for people to not give up on those who are struggling with mental illness.  And don’t disappear.  Even if you are uncomfortable.  Always remember that after you visit someone who is lost in the shadows, you get to go home and can experience the sunlight.

To all of you who are struggling with any kind of emotional turmoil and don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, know there is always a sunnier day coming and don’t stop reaching for it.  There are people who will listen.  You are so strong and I am here to listen if you need an ear.

Maybe rather than Let’s Talk, we could all just listen and bare witness to the pain others are experiencing.


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