I’d like to meet the person who has never experienced mental illness.
An adult who hasn’t been paralyzed with anxiety, lost days or weeks to the numb apathy of depression, or self-medicated their way through a loss with alcohol, food or drugs.
We respond to physical ailments with empathy and understanding, and then turn around and pretend that we can’t understand emotional illness.
We’ve all been sick. We’ve all had a loved one face cancer. We recognize the pain of the flu, the burden of chronic disease, and the sadness of terminal illness.
Fever and a bad cough? Take the day off work, stay in bed and rest. Take time to heal.
It’s okay to be unwell physically. It’s not your fault. It happens to the best of us. You are totally normal. I understand.
Feeling deeply sad and lost? Buck up. Smile anyway. Choose to be happy. If that doesn’t work, get professional help, but do not talk about it.
In other words: It’s not okay to be unwell emotionally. It’s probably your fault. You are abnormal. Only a professional can understand.
Yet, we’ve all been emotionally unwell. We’ve all had loved ones struggle with depression and anxiety. We’ve all experienced the overwhelming pain of loss.
Mental and emotional unwellness is a universal, shared, human experience. It is quite clearly a normal part of life.
Just as with physical ailments, all of us will move through periods of emotional illness, and many of us must learn to cope with chronic conditions.
Sadly, our reaction to mental illness doesn’t add up to that reality. We’ve been socialized to feel quite uncomfortable with the idea of mental illness, leading to isolation, shame, and a vicious cycle of feeling broken and hopeless.
Scenario A: Your friend has just shared that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer and feels lost and scared.
Scenario B: Your friend has just shared that she is too depressed get out of bed most days, and feels lost and scared.
What do you do?
Silence and shame is laced in the most subtle response (or lack of response) from the most well-intentioned.
Type 1 Diabetes is, at present, a lifelong condition that requires daily insulin injections. As a diabetic, I can openly let a colleague know that I am taking the rest of the day off because I mis-dosed and a hypoglycemic episode wiped me out.
I can easily find champions – role models who are living full out despite or perhaps even because of their diabetes. I can share my successes openly, cheered on without fear of stigma or discrimination. I can call a friend to ask for help.
But, an individual with a bipolar disposition cannot so easily share that today is just one of those days that they cannot get out of bed. That even with medication and careful monitoring, they still experience extreme lows that wipe them out.
They cannot readily find a champion openly living full out despite or perhaps even because of bipolar disorder. They cannot share their own successes out loud and get cheered on without fear of stigma or discrimination.
What beliefs do we hold about emotional illness? Are they true?
What happens when we treat the mind and body as separate, with the body as human and fallible, but the mind as either normal or broken?
Perhaps a better question: What would happen if we treated ourselves and others as whole, and reacted to emotional illness with the same understanding, empathy and space for healing as we do with physical illness?
It’s not hard. It starts with changing our own narrative.
It’s okay to be unwell emotionally. It’s not your fault. It happens to the best of us. You are totally normal. I understand.
It never helps to feel alone when we’re sick. A simple offering of soup and support is always in order.