It's tough to admit that we are all from time to time a little mentally ill. We don't want to acknowledge our intermittent mental illness because we would then become part of a stigmatized population -- a population that we ourselves have perhaps at times helped to stigmatize.
Throughout our lives, we travel a health-to-illness continuum, always seeking a return to wellbeing. While we acknowledge the physical realities of this continuum, it's harder to accept the emotional, cognitive and behavioral aspects.
If I comment to a friend that I'm sneezing, my joints ache, my temperature is slightly elevated, my throat hurts and I feel nauseous, my friend will very likely reply with something like, "Sounds like you're coming down with a cold or the flu." My friend might also suggest a remedy. "Don't forget to drink plenty of fluids and get a lot of rest. Eat some chicken soup. That always helps me." The conclusion might be that I'm a little physically ill. The assumption is that with proper, time-tested care, I will recover. Should my symptoms get worse, it is understood and expected that I will seek professional care, which might include a visit to my doctor, medications and even hospitalization.
It's not so easy for me to say to a friend that I'm feeling kind of hopeless, I'm not sleeping well, nothing seems to interest me and I've lost my appetite. However, wouldn't it be great if I could comfortably say those things? And wouldn't it be even greater if my friend could reply with something like, "Sounds like you're coming down with a touch of depression." And wouldn't it be greater still if my friend reminded me of possible remedies such as, "Don't forget to utilize your positive coping skills like talking to friends, exercising and restructuring negative thoughts. Remember that these episodes pass. Stay hopeful. I'm here for you." The conclusion might be that I'm a little mentally ill. The assumption might be that with proper, time-tested care, I will recover. But should my symptoms worsen, I would know to seek professional care, which might include a visit to my doctor, medications and even hospitalization. I would know that because with the normalization of mental illness, there would be no more stigma attached to my depression than is currently attached to my cold or touch of the flu.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four (close to 58 million) American adults experiences symptoms of a mental illness at some time during the year. I suspect that the one in four is fluid and interchangeable. Today I am the one in four. Tomorrow you might be the one.
These symptoms of mental illness that you and I experience in the one in four exchange are generally about as inconvenient as experiencing the symptoms of a cold or the flu. They pass, often without much effort or attention from us. Nevertheless, though, in the best of all possible worlds we would acknowledge that for the few hours or days of discomfort, we were suffering from a mild mental illness.
Of course, on that continuum of health-to-illness and back again to wellbeing, NAMI goes on to tell us that one in 17 American adults experiences and lives with symptoms of severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. Just as we acknowledge the impact of chronic physical conditions, a chronic mental illness can profoundly impair functioning and, yes, kill us. Suicide, according to NAMI, is the 11th-leading cause of death in this country. And all of these symptoms and behaviors exist in stigma.
Living with stigma not only damages. It silences. Silence in turn informs greater stigma. The intention of normalizing mental illness is not to minimize or trivialize its impact, but instead to openly acknowledge its existence.
As a first step in this normalization process, let's acknowledge that we are all, at one time or another, number one in the NAMI one in four who throughout the year experience symptoms of mental illness. Having accomplished that, it may be easier for us to look at the one in 17 among us suffering from severe mental illness not as separate, but as companions traveling with us on the continuum of wellbeing.
Since there's no such thing as a stigmatized majority, we could begin eliminating the stigma of mental illness simply by talking about our own symptoms however minor and fleeting they may be.
Yesterday I was a little mentally ill. Today I'm okay. Let's talk.
For more by Mary Walker Baron, click here.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.