We’ve all experienced mental illness at some point in our lives, whether first hand or simply as a witness. Most of us have averted our eyes as we have passed a stranger in the street having an incoherent conversation with somebody who is not there. Many of us have questioned why that family member or friend seems distanced or just inexplicably unhappy. Mental illness is all around us in many manifestations – Depression, schizophrenia, OCD, body dimorphic disorder – Yet few know much about it. We as humans often choose to ignore what scares us or what we can not fully understand, which is why I believe mental illness is often not perceived to be as serious as physical afflictions.
The difference between physical and mental illness is often that there is some sort of proof of being unwell. Somebody in a wheelchair, for example, shows obvious signs of living with a physical difficulty. At very first glance we can see signs of a hurt body – Unfortunately we can not see a hurt mind. We often adapt the way we treat the ill or the physically disabled – We show them extra care and compassion, we help them if they need it. Sadly a lack of understanding of mental health can mean that those who are struggling internally go without support due to the invisibility of their illness. Take somebody with an eating disorder – A skinny girl or boy for example, who insisted they were fat and showed persistent consciousness of their weight. A first (and very natural) assumption of an outsider could be that they were fishing for reassurance or compliments. We wouldn’t know the internal struggle of that person and how their simple comment of ‘I feel too fat to wear this’ translates from a raging battle of anxiety and body dysmorphia poisoning their every thought.
Depression, one of the most common forms of mental illness, can affect up to a quarter of the UK’s population over the course of a year. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Most of us have probably made the mistake of being too caught up in our own lives, our own problems, to identify it in someone close to us. We will pass off their lack of enthusiasm for being moody, or question why they seem so emotionally unavailable. I know I’ve done it.
Mental health problems are often just as hard to live with as physical illnesses. Sometimes even harder. The hardest part about them is the stigma associated with being diagnosed with a ‘broken mind.’ Many people feel embarrassed to share their problem with others when there have been so many negative connotations surrounding it within society – Crazy, insane, a nutter, weird. This leads to isolation and a sense of overwhelming loneliness which feeds the illness, a sense of blame attaching itself like a leech to the already injured mind. We wouldn’t tell somebody with cancer to ‘snap out of it’, in fact we’d be disgusted by the very thought – How could we possibly blame somebody for an illness they didn’t ask to bear? I believe the same consideration should be shown to the mentally ill, whether they suffer from a mild form of anxiety or severe schizophrenia. We have as little control over whether we develop a mental illness as we do over whether we catch the flu. Anything from a genetic predisposition to a triggering life event can influence the course of our mental health.
I believe that understanding is the key to identifying, supporting and treating mental illness. I use the word ‘treat’ rather than ‘cure’ because, in some cases, a cure simply isn’t possible. Unlike a broken arm which will heal over time, the cracks in the bones fusing together as they gradually grow stronger, a broken mind heals differently. Humans are powerful because of the strength and ability of our brains, but this also make us weak – The very same complex organ which allows us to do the wonderful things we can do is also able to harm us. We can heal our mental illnesses, but due to one of the most powerful tools we have access to – Memory – we can relapse. An arm recently healed from a break usually wouldn’t snap again at the slightest pressure – A mind on the other hand, due to its complexity, versatility and individuality, could. The more we understand about mental illness and the more comfortable we are in discussing it, the more able we will be to treat it. 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year – These people may be our partners, our cousins, our grandparents. Lets give them the chance to talk to us when they need to. Lets tell them about our own issues so they know they aren’t alone. Or, if talking isn’t an option, just make them a nest and let them feel safe for a while.