The Double Standard of Mental Illness
Mental health conditions are not the only illnesses to suffer from stigma: AIDS, leprosy and obesity are others. However, Princess Diana shook hands and shook the world at the same time. Antibiotics took care of leprosy and obesity receives a lot of attention from the media. But mental health…it still languishes in the shadows.
It receives occasional celebrity glances, but I feel like these campaigns actually move mental health further away from understanding. The answer is not more exposure to mental health, but more education. First Aid, CPR and sexual education can be found in schools, gyms and offices. Yet CBT could be mistaken for a television channel and mindfulness still invokes eye-rolling.
Everyone should be minding their own mental health, but it’s also important to know the signs in others—which is hard to do if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
If a family member walked into your living room, bent over in pain and screaming for help, what would you do? You would help, of course. And generally, you’d know what to do. If you saw blood, you’d try to stop it. If the person was choking, you’d open their airway. You wouldn’t be performing surgery if that was required, but you could call a doctor or drive them to a hospital or go to a pharmacy and get painkillers.
But with mental health, the picture is so different. We don’t do any of the above. We generally ignore the symptoms, often only seeing them in hindsight. Then we say, “Cheer up!” “Things aren’t that bad!” “Look on the bright side!” In the same way that these phrases will not cure a burst appendix, they can’t cure a bout of depression either.
For the most part, but by no means always, a person experiencing mental illness will present as withdrawn, detached or dissociated from reality. But because they’re not screaming in pain or doubled over, we think (misguidedly) that a few feel-good phrases are the best medicine. But the real best way to help when you see these behavioral changes—no matter how subtle they may be—is to recognize that this is the scream you’re looking for. It’s silent, so you must be on high alert, but just like stroke symptoms, the faster you act, the better the outcome is going to be.
Sympathy and empathy is always with the person experiencing the mental illness. And rightly so. Mental illness often feels like being at the bottom of a well you cannot climb out of. And like any illness, you feel sick. Some days, you feel sick every minute.
But there is an army of people struggling as well because mental illness is one of the hardest, most frustrating, most guilt-inducing illnesses to care for. Every caregiver berates themselves for the time they lost their temper, their patience or their cool. Not to mention the guilt and the unease that travels with them every time they leave the house or if their phone rings unexpectedly—the permanency of being on edge, the constant companion that is worry.
But most of all, every caregiver carries the same gnawing question: What if they could have caught their loved one’s illness sooner? What if they missed something—a clue, a sign?
Caregivers and individuals are somehow both expected to recognize symptoms, understand them and then get ourselves or our loved ones the right kind of help in an area of medicine where even the professionals seem to struggle to diagnose clearly. But how can we do that if we’re not properly educated first?
Michelle Walshe teaches teenagers in a College of Further Education in Dublin. This is a full-time job, inside and outside the classroom. Any spare time she has, she spends reading and writing. Michelle has had a number of articles published in the national media in Ireland. She’d lived in America, Australia, Switzerland, Germany and Morocco but home is where her family is and that is Ireland. Michelle has spent the last year taking care of her mother, who experiences bipolar disorder. Check out her blog at www.thesparklyshell.com.