The stigma of mental illness in this country is so great that I am very uncomfortable with the title of this blog. I feel like it would be easier to say "I have a life threatening illness" mostly because people have sympathy for illnesses caused by germs, viruses, or tumors (and I don't know why that should be, actually) but don't understand what it means to be mentally ill.
So let me walk you through it.
Mental illness is, very VERY simply (and I can't stress enough that this is a waaaaay simplified definition) a MEDICAL condition (like diabetes, or asthma) that disrupts a person's mood, thinking, ability to relate, and/or daily life.
Here's what it isn't: it's not a choice, it's not a death sentence, it's not a sure sign that someone might be violent, and it's not a reason to kick someone out of your life.
There are, of course, all kinds of mental illnesses. Just like there are about a billion strains of the flu (disclaimer: I don't actually know how many kinds of flu there are.) However, most people don't feel completely embarassed or worry that they will be ostracized when they have the flu.
But admitting you're mentally ill?
Which is why I wrestled with the title of this post. I usually don't say "mentally ill" in reference to myself. I usually say "I have an anxiety disorder." However, in the past week I've had multiple in-depth conversations with people who live with a variety of mental illnesses, and what ran through many of those conversations has been a sense of shame.
Let's face it -- we treat mental illness like it SHOULD be shameful. Insurance companies don't want to cover treatments, for the most part -- and if you've been diagnosed with mental illness, you should see what it does to your premiums (if you can get insurance at all). We also look at the community of the mentally ill askance when there is a tragedy in which mental illness is a factor, as though suddenly we're ALL capable of extreme violence.
I don't have statistics (math, whatevs) but I strongly suspect that many people who are mentally ill go untreated because they don't want to admit that they're ill. They can't talk about what or how they're suffering. I know that it took me years to ask for help, because I thought I should just get over myself and snap out of it. I said as much to my doctor and she said (awesomely, I might add): "You have asthma. Are you just going to get over yourself and cure that too? It's an ILLNESS. We'll treat it. No big."
Of course, the treatments can be expensive and hard to keep up with. (Which is the other problem with treating the mentally ill. Treatments -- long term treatments -- are often not affordable or easily obtained, and medications can be very trial and error and have weird, unpleasant side effects.)
No one who is mentally ill should be ashamed because they have an illness they can't control. I've never been embarassed to be asthmatic. I'm not embarassed to wear glasses.
And I refuse -- REFUSE -- to be ashamed of being mentally ill.
So, yeah, there it is. I'm mentally ill. It shouldn't be a big deal.
If you are also mentally ill -- hugs to you. You're awesome, you're amazing, and your struggles are my struggles. We need to stick together.
If you're afraid to ask for help and want a buddy? Message me. You're not all alone, ever. There are lots of things you can do to help yourself, but the first thing you HAVE to do is ask for help.
If you know someone who is mentally ill, love them. Understand that they may react to things in ways that don't make sense to you. Ask them how you can support them. Don't make assumptions.
If you want additional information, the National Alliance of Mental Illness is a good place to start. You can go here.