Mental illness isn’t treated like other illnesses.
I know this comes as no surprise to you.
We talk about brave sufferers or survivors of physical illnesses. Those individuals enduring big-ticket diagnoses are (rightly) seen as heroic.
We give them flowers and cook them meals. We look after their children and ask them how they are.
However, when we discover a friend or colleague is suffering with a mental illness it is rarely the same. We don’t know what to say. An invisible illness is harder to talk about, more complicated to recognise. Even if we ourselves have experienced this kind of struggle, we get tongue tied, we are unable to find the words. It seems there are a myriad of ways to get it wrong, so we say nothing, for fear of offending.
And the person who is suffering, who desperately needs to know they are not alone feels exactly that: alone and isolated.
Somehow, for ridiculous reasons to do with our own fear I think, people with mental illnesses are often viewed as ‘weaker’ or seen as not having a strong enough framework. They ‘let everything get on top of them’ and if they had more balance/discipline/capacity they would be able to stop their suffering. Or maybe, if they had wanted to, they could have ‘chosen’ to be well, a combination of determination and faith and they wouldn’t be in this predicament. I have even heard some people hint that the person who is mentally ill is attention seeking – and enjoying it a bit.
This is an ignorant posture.
And as I wrote a couple of years ago, ignorance creates a grace deficit.
And, it creates a culture of shame.
I heard a story once about someone who had come close to suffering a nervous breakdown. I was told she had walked to edge of the abyss, looked in and decided, yes – decided, not to fall in, through her own will-power she made a choice, and turned around and walked away. Towards health and healing.
Boy, that was hard to hear. And I am pleased for her, that she didn’t go under. But it isn’t always (or even often) possible to walk away.
We wouldn’t dream of telling someone who broke bones in a diving accident, or falling from a horse, that their predicament was in some way their own doing. We wouldn’t tell a cancer sufferer that they had brought it on themselves, we wouldn’t dream of it. We would show compassion and care. We would feel their pain and struggle, and want to carry them through it. We would accept that they could not contribute to life and community in the way they once had, and be gracious with them.
But with mental illness we too often try to ignore it. We don’t do the research to discover how we could help. We don’t send flowers or cook meals. Maybe out of some warped idea about protecting the sufferers privacy, or their pride, we do nothing.
I saw a play by the brilliant Mighty Heart Theatre a few months back. It told true stories about people affected by mental illness. One story was about a woman who had suffered a mental illness and breast cancer. She compared the two experiences. As part of this story she described the table-top covered with get-well-soon cards she had received during her cancer treatment. She was so overwhelmed by the support she felt, she took numerous photos of those cards, and of the flowers and gifts she received.
Which was in stark contrast to when she had suffered from her mental illness. No cards, no gifts, barely any acknowledgment of her suffering.
And I get it.
It is difficult to talk to people about their mental health without feeling like you are intruding. And even if you feel you have permission to talk about these things, it is hard to find the words. We don’t have a common language for these things yet.
But until we start to talk, until we brave conversations, until we mention the things we think are unnameable, nothing will change.
Three more people I know talked to me for the first time this week about their battle for mental health. About their fear and exhaustion and sadness.
I want the landscape to change for them, and for me, and for anyone else who is scared and feels alone.
And things are changing.
In the two and a half years I have been writing this blog it has been exciting to join this conversation. To read the articles and listen to the radio programmes. To watch the documentaries and the theatre productions.
But we are just beginning. Only scratching the surface.
We are still a way off talking about our mental health and our physical health in the same way, with the same freedom or confidence.
I will continue to play my part, to write this blog, to share on social media, to have these conversations, to remind, to provoke, to encourage and connect.
Because it is not ‘weak’ people who suffer, or those who cant get their shit together. It is all sorts of people. It is anyone. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate.
And until the culture of shame and secrecy surrounding mental illness is smashed. Until we (and by we – I mean all of us) stop judging and categorising and labelling. I will carry on. We must carry on.
Our silence can cause pain and isolation, it can breed shame and fear.
Or, our words can comfort and bring hope.
Please add your words to this conversation. Please risk it.
And may we keep adding to these words. May we, together, birth a new culture of acceptance, a culture where there is permission to be vulnerable, confidence to ask for, or offer, help, and hope forged through being with each other.
While writing this (which I nearly did not write as I felt embarrassed to keep banging on about it – don’t worry, I got over that pretty quick) I stumbled across some cards and e-cards that were designed for Mental Health charity Time to Change, you can find them here. Maybe thats a place to start.
*The cartoons in this blog post are both by the brilliant cartoonist Stephen Collins. You can find his work here.