Just for a moment, I want you to imagine being trapped inside your own mind.
Imagine that, despite any evidence to the contrary, your mind constantly takes situations and turns them into disasters. Imagine being so incredibly paralyzed by fear, anguish, guilt, jealousy, and every other terrible emotion under the sun, that it’s almost all you can bear just to pull yourself out of bed in the morning. Imagine believing, with barely a sliver of doubt, that the most worthless, undeserving person you know…is yourself.
Imagine yourself dealing with nearly every situation with the knife of anxiety at your throat, giving you the choice of either suffering from panic attacks, or coping with those situations in unsavory ways. Imagine feeling inferior to everyone else, because you can’t deal with simple, everyday situations. Imagine feeling like no one else could possibly get why you think the way you do.
Imagine being so wrought in despair, self-loathing, and guilt, you seriously consider taking your own life.
Society puts so much time, money, and effort into researching a great number of physical diseases and illnesses…cancer, HIV/AIDS, cerebral palsy, leukemia, and countless others. All of this attention directed at these physical afflictions is completely, 100% needed and deserved. In my opinion, the researchers who have made it their life goal to find a cure for, as of now, incurable diseases, are the best types of people. It goes without saying, but a wife shouldn’t have to lose her husband of many years to cancer. A child shouldn’t have to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair simply because she was fated to. Attention to physical illnesses and diseases is absolutely warranted.
Then, there’s mental illness. Individuals who suffer from mental illnesses such as depression, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, PTSD, and dementia (and that’s a small list of the illnesses we know about) often suffer from symptoms just as bad (and sometimes worse) as those who suffer from physical debilitation. There are some who argue that we put so much effort into researching physical diseases because there are many that are terminal – being “overly anxious” never hurt anyone, right?
Wrong. Statistics show that more than 1,000,000 people commit suicide per year. One million people, gone from the Earth, no more life to live, simply because they decided life wasn’t worth it. Granted, not all suicide stems from mental illnesses, but a great deal of it does. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10-24 worldwide. That is tragically incredible. For such a young age range, for so many people to be convinced that life isn’t worth living, even with so much life laid out in front of them…it’s heartbreaking.
Oftentimes we can see the effects of physical diseases: a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy may lose his hair, or a woman suffering from Parkinson’s disease may have shaking hands. For mental diseases, it’s so much harder for the unwary eye to see. A man can put on a smile, make it through a work day, and laugh with his friends, but the next morning his depression threatens to have him stay in bed all day. A small girl may be seen as simply shy and quiet, but in secret she wants to communicate so many things, it’s simply her autism preventing her from doing so.
For those unaware of how many ways mental illnesses can affect people, symptoms are often misunderstood. Depression is seen as being “down in the dumps.” Anorexia is seen as someone having a skinny celebrity as a role model and wanting to look like them. Anxiety is seen as being a “worrywart” or “cowardly.” There is stigma attached to mental illness because so many people are unequipped to deal with it, and, quite simply, because many people don’t realize it’s a serious, attention-worthy problem in many people’s lives.
You see, that’s just it. People don’t realize. They’re unequipped. Unaware. How are we supposed to help mental illness sufferers deal with their problems if they don’t speak about them?
To start with, many individuals suffering from mental illnesses aren’t speaking about their problems not because they don’t want help, but because they don’t think they’re worth it, or fear of being judged or, all too often, not even the one suffering from the mental illness realizes it’s an actual, medical problem. We live in an era where more and more light is being brought to mental illnesses every day, and as a result, more of society is becoming aware of the debilitating effect these “invisible” diseases have on people’s lives. But, as a worldwide community, we aren’t quite where we need to be yet.
To be turned against by your own body is a terrible thing. To be turned against by your own mind is just as bad. This is why I write on these topics. These dark, depressing, and oftentimes uncomfortable topics are real things that real people deal with, on a daily basis. The uncomfortable conversations are the ones we need to be having, if we’re to get anywhere in making those affected by mental illnesses have lives not plagued by uncertainty.
The next time someone entrusts in you that they suffer from any sort of mental illness, don’t think about how they may not be in any significant physical pain. Instead, remember that they’re in mental pain, whether it be self-loathing, anxiety, hallucinations, memory loss…they deal with this on a daily basis. But do not let this change your opinion of them for the worse. Instead, respect them for having the strength and fortitude to deal with whatever their mind heaps upon them. Understand that you will never fully understand the way their mind works, but have compassion for them regardless. And, most importantly, love them for who they are, not for whoever their illness is so desperately trying to make them be. Do this simple thing, and the world is one step closer to combating mental illness.