Changing The Way Society Understands Mental Health

By Theo Bennett | Apr. 16, 2015
Mental health in schools   Theo Bennett

Come see Theo Bennett speak at the 2015 NAMI National Convention in San Francisco during the Opening Session on Tuesday, July 7.

It’s no secret that mental health is routinely treated differently than physical health, but sometimes it’s difficult to understand how or why this affects us. This disparity can take many shapes and forms, ranging from negative societal perceptions to discrimination in health coverage for mental health. Consequently, this unequal treatment of mental and physical illnesses leads to unequal results.

If we don’t recognize mental illnesses as physical health issues, then we will never get people the treatment that they need. One of the few certainties that I have learned from living with a father with bipolar disorder is that mental health is just as important as physical health. In fact, mental health is physical health; the two are inseparable. It baffles me that many people continue to make a distinction between the two.

In an effort to better understand the subtlety of mental illness, I have sought out opportunities that have changed both my life and my perception of mental illness. I went from reading articles online in my free time to doing hands-on research about the physiological development of mental illness at Dr. Renee Reijo-Pera’s Stem Cell Institute and the Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery at Montana State University.

While our current generation of medication and treatment can be frustrating at times, I have seen how learning more about the underlying biochemical pathways holds great promises for the future. My journey has also become an adventure all across the nation advocating for a more humanistic perspective of mental health. The ability to speak up and share what I’ve discovered with people and the chance to connect with others in similar experiences have been some of the most fulfilling experiences in my life.

Ironically, the same fluidity and complexity of mental disorders that I find so fascinating has prevented those same disorders from gaining societal acceptance in the same way that physical illnesses have. They are just as real, but they are sometimes more difficult to understand. The social stigma that those living with mental illness experience essentially stems from this fundamental lack of understanding of mental disorders as physical illnesses. This is what makes living with mental illness so hard and is something that we all need to recognize to a greater extent, myself included.

Initially, I dismissed my father's illness as simple craziness. In a manic state my dad hallucinated that he was dealing cards with Christ’s apostles and during his crippling depression he couldn’t lift himself from his bed for weeks. Even though my dad’s physical reality didn’t match my own, it was naive to ignore the fact that there are people behind these diseases, and that their illnesses don't encapsulate their personalities. If I dismiss you as crazy, then how can we start a dialogue? We need to begin by empathizing and loving those who we don’t fully understand. Whether this takes the form of a quick post on social media or a late-night conversation with a loved one in desperate need of support, simply speak up. Speak out. Be heard. Show love. Listen well.

This change doesn’t come easy. In fact, it was only through understanding the complexity of my father’s mental illness that I gradually came to learn—through trauma, confusion, and grief—more about myself and the human condition than I had ever thought possible. My experiences with mental illness in my family challenged me to become a more compassionate and patient individual; through my father’s precipitous highs and seemingly endless lows, our collective vulnerability created an incredibly strong emotional bond between us.

From my personal experiences, my biggest takeaway has been that a fundamental difference between mental progress and debilitation comes from understanding your current situation. The thoughts and worries we all experience are real and important regardless of whether our situation conforms to others’ ideas of mental health. If we can accept our current state, then we can begin to move forward. Mental wellness is not a mind over matter issue—nobody claims it is—but it does involve a certain level of acceptance.

At the end of the day, however, I’m still a young, confused teenager trying to process what mental illness really means to me and my family. My greatest fear, however, is not that I am hopeless to change our society’s perception of mental illness, nor that I can’t adequately solve the world’s disconnect between mental and physical health issues. Instead, I fear that we possess a voice and a power to effect change, and yet we fail to speak out and bond together as equals.

If nothing else, everyone reading this can simply increase their familiarization with those living with mental illness around them to broaden their spectrum of receptive comfort. Hearing the stories of others can widen our capacity for love if we only allow ourselves to learn from a wider variety of experiences. We have all been given a voice and the ability to listen, please use these gifts to start affecting the way we perceive mental health.

Theo Bennett is a freshman studying neuroscience at Brigham Young University. Although he barely knows what he’s doing next weekend, he has always aspired to be a part of the much needed change in the American mental health care system. 

Comments
John
Also consider changing the name of your org & stop calling Autism & other mental conditions mental illnesses. Everyone is evolving their terminology except you
7/28/2016 5:15:26 AM

Cammi
This is an amazing read! I find it incredible that a person who hasn't even experienced mental illness himself wrote this, since you hit every detail right on the nose. I am so grateful that we have such good people like you in our society that make an effort to understand the pain that people with mental illnesses have to suffer. There are too many people that would have just dismissed their bipolar father as "crazy" and left it at that (by the way, "crazy" and "insane" are probably the two most insulting things to call a person dealing with mental illness. Believe me, I've gotten my fair share).

Also, I wanted to leave some individual quotes from this article down here in case someone reads over these fantastic sentences.
Here they are:

---"Ironically, the same fluidity and complexity of mental disorders that I find so fascinating has prevented those same disorders from gaining societal acceptance in the same way that physical illnesses have. They are just as real, but they are sometimes more difficult to understand. The social stigma that those living with mental illness experience essentially stems from this fundamental lack of understanding of mental disorders as physical illnesses. This is what makes living with mental illness so hard and is something that we all need to recognize to a greater extent, myself included."

---"...it was naive to ignore the fact that there are people behind these diseases, and that their illnesses don't encapsulate their personalities. If I dismiss you as crazy, then how can we start a dialogue?"

---"The thoughts and worries we all experience are real and important regardless of whether our situation conforms to others’ ideas of mental health. If we can accept our current state, then we can begin to move forward. Mental wellness is not a mind over matter issue—nobody claims it is—but it does involve a certain level of acceptance."
5/9/2016 11:05:07 PM

Samantha
I, myself suffer from a mental illness as several people from my family. It is definitely hard thing to adjust too. And I have to take medicine daily. I notice the differences when I don't take it and when I do.
4/19/2016 12:50:14 PM

Rev. James Llewellyn Mengel III
It's time we stopped using the word "mental" for these conditions. That word just adds to the stigma. The brain is part of the PHYSICAL BODY! Anybody refute that?
4/17/2016 3:32:39 PM

Debbie
I have been skeptical of big Pharmacy companies most my adult life. When my adult son started having changes in his mental status we started the convoluted journey of mental illness meds. My son NEEDS the meds. We have watched the pattern 4 times and every time he goes off he gets sick. For him, the last major illness he literally didn't sleep for 4 days. His pupils were dilated to the size of quarters. We had to force him to the hospital with a well person check by law enforcement. His sentences were disjointed and made no sense. He had absolutely no drugs or alcohol in his system. To me that proved to me his need for pharmacy drugs. Almost a year later with the right services he is getting his own (supportive) apartment and takes meds every day that are brought to his home. They check in and make sure he can get to appointments. The point is everyone is different and that's why we need more comprehensive healthcare encompasses all angles of treatment. My son needs pharmacy meds, some don't. Never thought I would be grateful for pharmacy and it's industry. Breaking stigma is a whole other animal. Its down right dangerous and wouldn't be tolerated with any other illness. I recommend the NAMI family to family class. I'm not ashamed and breaking stigma starts with me. Learning to talk about mental health and seeing peoples ignorance as opportunity to educate them. Rest in your pain for mental illness is the long grief.
1/6/2016 2:30:10 PM

Mair
Beautifully written, Theo!
Best wishes going forward! With your insight and compassion and writing gift, you will help change society's perceptions!💪❤️
1/4/2016 12:03:23 AM

Victor
Hi, I am diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It's been about 6 years since my diagnosis. I'm a lot better now. It's a difficult illness to have. You need to be strong to survive. That's the truth. Also true is there is treatment out there if you are willing to seek it and take the effort and persistence to make it work. Pharmaceuticals are great and sometimes essential for survival but not the only treatment. Anyone with this illness: STAY STRONG, seek help, God loves you, it gets better with time and effort.
1/1/2016 3:42:37 PM

Kerry
I'm sorry for those of you who believe this is only about drugs. I can tell you the way I coped for 30 years....30 years!! was to become a marijuana addict. Yes, mary jane. You wouldn't know by looking at me. At the end I realized that it was controlling me. An ounce a week, $400/month, was a problem. I didn't get "high". I just maintained a calm exterior. When I quit cold turkey I went absolutely, certifiably crazy. I still can't believe the things I did. THC is a drug. It's chemical affects your brain. That's why some of my meds help, because they mimic that feeling and do something or stop something inside my brain. When I got upset, smoking kept me calm. However, it only kept the suicide devil at bay. I didn't come up with any plans, kind of like I have now, but it was there.
So when I hear that it's all about pharm companies making money, I think you have to dig deeper. Or, you may just be starting your journey and have a lot more to experience.
My experience tells me there are so many more than just one answers. But your body chemistry is constantly changing. And body chemistry is a real thing. It's why you can eat shrimp one day and be allergic and to into anaphylactic shock the next.
I wish everyone only the best and if there were one med or one therapy, that company/person would be a trillionare.
5/5/2015 9:58:20 PM

Kerry
Sue, I can totally relate to what you have experienced. Drugs and therapy, constantly changing. And yet, no answers. Insurance companies who won't pay for the pharmaceuticals. Just going around with that causes stress. Like you, it seems there is no rhyme or reason as to why depression hits. Everything is ok. Then. One day I can't get out of bed. I call in sick. And the next and the next I force myself to work. I come home and sleep. I lie when people ask how I am. "Great" "Everything's great!" And I count the hours until bedtime.
For me, the guilt is the worst. If you look at my life on paper, ignoring my childhood, you would say I should not have any reason to be depressed. There are far more people in the world worse off than me. Yet I can't get out of bed and take my dogs for a walk. I hide from people. I don't answer my phone or texts. I'm screaming inside. What is wrong with me?
I think of suicide a lot. I was locked up once. I think if I was diagnosed with cancer I wouldn't seek treatment. If it weren't for my 3 rescue dogs, I don't think I would be here now. I just wouldn't leave them without a "mom". I think when they eventually pass on, a year from now or 10 years from now....that's my out.
Since I am bi-polar there are other issues, sudden rushes of anger, extreme highs. Friendliness, then ignoring everyone. I can't be relied upon "to show up" so it's difficult to sign up for anything. I feel so alone.
A strong, new Catholic (one thing that has actually helped)...some times, for seemingly no reason, I find myself depressed, alone and sad. Being a Catholic, I find myself gripping a crucifix in one hand and the rosary in the other. Hail Mary's over and over and over and over. Crying and asking for help until I fall asleep. Please don't misunderstand that I am pushing religion. Prayer helps me. The Catholic faith understands mental health and the Vatican has changed their opinions about suicide and mental health quite a bit over the years. I say that because they are the one of the most traditional entities and yet they are coming to realize that they have to address this and are trying to help.
I don't have any answers. Is this something I inherited from my family? Well, I can't have that conversation because my parents don't believe in mental illness. They barely believe one can have a cold and aren't just faking it. Or even a broken bone. "Just get on with it"
As do you all, my story has a lot of complications and depth. I wish everyone the best of luck. And I don't have any answers, other than everyone has to do what they feel is right for them.
5/5/2015 9:46:51 PM

Shaul Kabakchy
Amy Lyne said...

The real stigma of mental illness is that people accused of mental illness are also accused of "broken brains" and are different than everyone else.

Enough stress and bad breaks in life will cause ANYONE to become mentally ill. - See more at: http://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/April-2015/Changing-The-Way-Society-Understands-Mental-Health#sthash.kf45Ovbd.dpuf

100%


Once upon a time when I just started experiencing severe emotional problems after chemo, as a new peer counselor I had a client who shocked me with his thought that he would rather prefer to have visible physical handicap such as not having arm or leg to having mental health problems.

It may sound indecent, but several years later I came to the same conclusion: I would rather prefer losing arm or leg to mental health problems. As it was mentioned by Amy Lyne, people label you as “having broken brains” which turns life into insults and humiliations on the daily basis. People casually point you on your subhuman place, especially people having low self-esteem themselves.

I remember brilliant recollections of stroke by Dr.Bolte-Taylor when nurse yelling condescendingly to the half-conscious doctor who is unable to speak, but wanted to tell “I am a wounded animal, not a stupid animal”. And something like this every day...
4/30/2015 11:22:13 PM

dawn crosby
If only more people in the world understood this. Not only did my father struggle with mental illness and die before he was 50. I myself am bi-polar and now my 10 year-old has been diagnosed with a mood disorder. It has been such a struggle just to get the support of my own family. I truly hope some day the world will change. Until than we fight our battles the best we can and hope it is enough.
4/30/2015 7:17:03 PM

kelly
It's amazing how people just don't want to identify that mental illness is crippling just like a broken leg. Great article, yes l share your voice everyday working in a inpatient facility as a peer support specialist. Keep up the great work.
4/30/2015 11:37:07 AM

Brenda Wisdom
Thank you so much for sharing with such love and compassion.
4/30/2015 9:28:24 AM

Chaim Bochner
Hi,

Why isn't anyone listening to Amy?

I'm on psychiatric drugs and it messed up my life.

There is no chemical imbalance other than what the drugs cause period.
4/29/2015 11:44:11 PM

Sue Wyn
Thank you so much for all your hard caring work and compassion!! mental illness is big bucks $$ for the pharmaceutical companies. That is because the medicines are so bad and so non-effective for mental illness that often people try several different drugs!! $$ even more money for the drug companies!! I was on different medicines for over 25 years. Drs kept changing & adding more medications. My last resort was a medicine from the 1960's. Hardly prescribed anymore. most Drs coming out med school haven't even heard about them!! Well that medicine gave me my life back!! Here is where I disagree Amy...when you say mental illness is not a broken brain. I believe it is very much like that. I don't understand how I can be my normal self and then turn into the person that I am when experiencing a major depression! Mine happens when things may not be going so well but just as often it occurs when things are going well. I think stress and bad breaks in life do not cause a mental illness! It may be a trigger but not the root cause! "Depression defined, is the normal human emotion and is a common response to a loss, failure or major disappointments in life. Major Depression is different. It is a serious emotional and biological disease that affects one's thoughts, feelings, behavior, mood and physical health. Major depression is a life long condition in which periods of wellness alternate with reoccurrences of illness and requires long-term treatment, just like any other chronic medical illness." As I heard from Andrew Soloman on a Ted Talk. "Major depression is not caused by sadness. When I have an episode yes I am sad but my sadness comes from my depression but does not cause the depression. During my episodes I am sad because I can no longer get out bed and I don't know why. I am sad that I cannot interact with my family and closest friends. I am sad because if I can make It to the grocery store I have to leave because all the products and what normally are second nature desicions overwhelm me and I have to leave the store. I am sad because I don't feel or care about anything although I desperately want to!
I am sad because I am no longer the person I use to be! When I am well- I can feel joy as well as sad. I can feel happy as well as disappointment. I am thrilled because I can once again feel all the various emotions that everyone experiences both good and bad!...until the next time....when it comes once again to drag me down into that dark hell hole of Major Depression!" This is me in a nutshell!
4/29/2015 11:19:23 PM

Kimberly
Thank you for you article. There is definitely a stigma and all people need to know facts and not just "label". I have a schizophrenic mother so I know what a struggle it can be. It is very sad to me that people just make "light" of mental illness and say "they are just crazy" when this is a real condition that needs treated just like a heart attack.
4/29/2015 12:31:19 PM

amy lyne
"underlying biochemical pathways"

There has never been ANY scientific proof of any underlying biochemical pathways.

The drug companies push that cause they sell CHEMICALS !

The real stigma of mental illness is that people accused of mental illness are also accused of "broken brains" and are different than everyone else.

Enough stress and bad breaks in life will cause ANYONE to become mentally ill.

But no the pharma companies want to sell drugs so we stigmatize everyone with those unproven broken brain chemical theories that make them big bucks.

I was treated like a sub human in the hospital because of those broken brain theories and my objection to their disabling drugs and threats to try and coerce them.

The real stigma of mental illness is that a person is chemically broken and "needs" drugs with horrible side effects.
4/23/2015 11:15:04 AM

Lisa Whiteneck
well said and so true
People say things like "mind over matter cheer up". But you cannot will away a mental illness anymore than you can diabetes.
4/19/2015 7:43:04 AM

Cindy`
Theo, Great article. It isn't easy being the child of someone with a longterm mental or physical illness. I am glad you have tried to educate yourself and others about compassion toward those with these illnesses.
4/18/2015 7:33:01 PM

Nancy
So beautifully expressed and so true! Thank you Theo for being so outspoken and helping others to feel more comfortable about mental health. You are going to have a positive rippling effect on many lives, youngsters especially!
4/18/2015 5:06:40 PM

Desiree Woodland
Proud of him for speaking up and speaking out... We need more of us to speak openly to break the stigma.
4/18/2015 12:18:12 AM

jill edelman
A wonderfully expressive description of witnessing the mental illness of a beloved parent with wisdom kindness and intelligence.
4/17/2015 8:39:17 PM

Adriana Reyes
Thank you so much for sharing us your story. My story is similar as your story. I am a wife that lives with a husband that it was dignosted with Bipolar Disorder almost 20 years ago and have two daughters. We all struggled trying to understand or treat him with these illness.
4/17/2015 6:15:04 PM

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