April 16, 2015

By Theo Bennett

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. 

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