The Taboo & What To Do

Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall wearing green shoes on the field for mental health awareness week.

Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall wearing green shoes on the field for mental health awareness week. Photo Mike DiNovo of USA Today Sports.

When you search for articles about the taboo enveloping mental illness, the articles go back far. And the decade-old ones say the exact same thing that today’s articles on the subject say. It feels as though nothing has changed.

Obviously, progress on the mental health front has occurred steadily for some time. Researchers are constantly learning more about the biological processes behind the diseases, little by little, though the illnesses are still generally shrouded in mystery. Medicines have changed, some resources have improved, diagnostic criteria have changed, and the treatment of the ill has changed somewhat (not nearly enough).

How come society’s attitude has not changed? Maybe a more cynical person would not be surprised. But that same cynic would have been proved wrong if they had doubted whether racial segregation would end, or whether LGBT rights would ever be passed, or whether women would gain equality. We’ve come so far in each of those respects. While racism is still very present, most of the people you meet will treat those of different races equally. Homophobia it still prevalent, but most people I know are very accepting of all sexual orientations and equal rights have passed in some states. Sexism is still present, but now, women who want to take on the “traditional” role of stay-at-home-mother are actually looked down upon by career-oriented women, and young celebrity women are encouraged to display their body parts and sexuality for the world to see, “empowering” themselves. In any cases of racism, homophobia, and sexism, the media (besides Fox News) will, rightly and obviously, acknowledge the person being discriminated against or prejudiced as the victim of unjust treatment. But most media pieces about mental illness that show up on the morning or evening news take violent crimes and focus entirely on the fact that the perpetrator supposedly suffered from “mental issues” previous to the incident. This irks me for many reasons. When a journalist does not have every piece of information about an incident, they often write, “the name of the suspect has not yet been released,” and, “investigators do not yet know how many weapons and what kinds of weapons the perpetrator had”. But if a reporter hears that the person of interest may have had “mental issues”, even though that is a very general and uncertain piece of information, they publish it right away, because correlating violence with mental illness is encouraged in the media, and often makes front pages.

A 2011 British survey of people demonstrated that people found it more difficult to open up about having a mental illness than to come out as homosexual. The survey also found that fewer than four out of ten employers would “feel able to employ someone with a mental health problem.” A tragic find, indeed.

The topic of homosexuality used to make some people extremely uncomfortable. But after time, it was addressed and we are still working as a country to pass more LGBT rights. Mental illness has been around for a very long time. And the fact that people are uncomfortable about talking about it is an illegitimate reason to ignore it, and has not stopped other previous taboos from (eventually) being addressed. For example, rape/abortion is a subject that can often be very uncomfortable to discuss, and yet, so many politicians and spokespeople have made both strong, enlightened suggestions and ignorant, hurtful comments about the topic. Both sides of the argument are there and unafraid to be heard loud and clear.

One difference between our subject and the others is that people actually know what rape is, and what abortion is. People know that homosexuality is not a choice, not an affliction, but a perfectly acceptable sexual orientation. People know that a difference in race is simply a difference in pigmentation, and, sometimes, origin. People know now that these traits do not make a person better or worse, or more or less capable than others. Thus, they are not afraid to approach those subjects. Most people, however, are not aware of mental illnesses, their symptoms, causes, and/or treatments. Many are convinced that they do not know anyone with a serious mental illness. And because of recent portrayals of events, the image that many “normal” minds would conjure up when they think “mentally ill” would be a crazed-looking man with a gun. It can seem a frightening subject to the uneducated, which certainly contributes to the taboo.

I started learning about STD’s and general biological health topics in 8th grade. Instead of actually learning the facts about mental illnesses, we watched “A Beautiful Mind”. That is the extent to which my school thought mental health education was necessary. And the fact that none of the friends and classmates I graduated with know anything about a condition that I suffer from saddens me. I have not “come out” as bipolar to anyone besides one close friend, one close cousin, my boyfriend, and my immediate family (partly because I am not a social person). If I did “come out” with my illness to any friends or acquaintances in my community, they would probably either make assumptions based on news media/cinema portrayals, or  assume that I am simply over-emotional with wild mood swings all day because that is all that they think they know about the illness.

Some are under the assumption that mental illness does not affect many people and that those of us affected should not “force” our “issues” on the general population. 6%, about 1 in 17 Americans, suffers from a serious mental illness. 9.5% of the U.S. population has a mood disorder. Something that affects so many of us needs to be acknowledged and discussed. Many of these illnesses begin presenting themselves during a patient’s teenage years. Yet, mental health education is not apparent in most high schools and health teachers themselves are often very uneducated in the subject. Mine cracked jokes about Russell Crowe’s character in “A Beautiful Mind” being “cuckoo”. Even if a student has not yet been diagnosed with an illness, this attitude just ensures that if and when they are diagnosed, they will be extremely reluctant to share that information with anyone and/or get the help they need because they fear being ostracized, as so many of the mentally ill are.

Not only does school mental health education need to improve, I believe that mental health screenings should be implemented. Many junior high schools, high schools, and universities require physical examinations to be completed and submitted for their students. Screenings do not have to be uncomfortable or intrusive. Making sure that students are mentally and emotionally sound, and, if not, at least encouraging them to get help and giving them the resources and direction to do so, could literally save lives.

Another hurtful source of shame comes from family. Parents are often ashamed and embarrassed to have a son or daughter with a mental illness. Some feel that they have failed. Some blame their own sons/daughters for the illness, and call them weak. Others are totally unsupportive, not taking the illness seriously, and implying that they should and can “get over it”. This could be the very same parent that, when a son or daughter is diagnosed with a more physical disease that they did not know much about, would get on the internet and learn all about it and come up with ways to help support him/her. Imagine being rejected by your own flesh and blood for an illness you cannot control. You feel totally unable to share your disease with others and get the support you need. You feel alone in the world. Many of us do. When this happens to a teenager, completely dependent on his/her parents for getting adequate treatment, the results can be tragic. Sometimes, the ignorance and shame a parent has toward mental illness will keep them from letting/helping their child to get help. Everyone, especially parents, needs to become more knowledgable on the subject. School counselors and screenings could help parents learn as well.

There are so many prevalent issues out there, and since there seem to be so few solutions, a favorite strategy of media, politicians, and most people in general is to find someone to blame. Radical West Borough Baptist church members picket soldiers’ funerals and blame deaths on homosexuality, using extremely offensive slurs and ridiculous accusations. The rest of the world agrees that these statements are completely wrong and that the behavior is horrible and hurtful. Yet, when reporters generalize and blame violent crime on the mentally ill, people say, “You know what? We really do need to change our mental health system. I don’t want my kids near any crazies.” When people are talking about mental illness, they’re using it as a scapegoat. Reporters are completely uneducated about mental illness when they proceed to comment on it, especially a certain ignoramus from Fox News. I see news about hate crimes involving race and sexual orientation on my home page very frequently. We see stories about women experiencing sexism in the workplace all the time. Those who standup for themselves become martyrs. But I have never seen a story about a hate crime against a mentally ill person, and those happen quite frequently. They happen more frequently than violent crimes against  “normal” people, and much, much, much more frequently than violent crimes committed by mentally ill persons. Yet, the twisted media chooses to demonize the mentally ill and ignore the vicious acts incurred against them.

My parents have not taken my illness too seriously in the past. They did not react much when I was diagnosed. Years ago, after my first suicide attempt, they did not call the police or have me see a psychologist. They did not even ask me why I did it. I was reprimanded, went to school the next day and was expected to carry on as usual. That day was the worst of my life. I had a horrible stomach ache, as I had managed to get several aspirin down before I was interrupted, and I had never felt more empty or hopeless. I literally asked my parents to show more concern for my emotional and mental state (in those words) since my acting out wasn’t getting their attention. They told me that I should be more grateful for what I had. They told me I had no reason to be unhappy, that I should “get over” myself.  I told them that if I had a kid who was feeling depressed and suicidal without reason, I would be extremely concerned. If I had a reason, that would be normal. The lack of a reason is what makes it so upsetting. They did not understand that. They did not take me seriously, and I felt like I could not get help alone. My own family dismissed and rejected my ailments, so of course I didn’t talk to anyone else about my problems. This happens to kids all the time, and reinforces the taboo and feeling of shame.

A year and a half later, when I informed them of my intention to attempt suicide again, they threatened to call the police, and forced me to see a psychologist. This was after many, many cries of help that I presented in many different forms. I had previously refused to see a psychologist out of fear of embarrassment. I live in a very small town, and if anyone found out, I felt it would be the end of me. But it was a choice between seeing a psychologist and having the police called/being taken to the hospital. I saw the psychologist and was diagnosed with depression. My father told my psychologist that he did not believe her, and even after she literally showed him the diagnostic criteria in her DSM manual, and explained how it fit me, he told her that I was “just a spoiled brat”. I was not medicated, but had weekly talk sessions with my shrink for about a year. She gave me some coping mechanisms and the sympathy and understanding that I had always asked my parents for. I went to college, had the worst year of my life, decided to seek help again, and was diagnosed Bipolar II. I gave my parents some information on the illness. I was given medication. They were kinder, as my relationship with them was better than it had been in my high school years. Still, they do not ask me much about it. They ask how the medications are working and making me feel. When I try to have a conversation about other important and interesting aspects of my illness, they sometimes try to end the conversation, and never show the interest that I wish for. My mother is quite supportive of me, as is my sister. My father is financially supportive and friendly to talk to about most topics. The saddest part for me is that I am proud of where I am. I feel strong for having gotten through what I’ve gotten through. I barely got through, but I did. I was surprised that I ended that year alive. There were nights that I had planned on not waking up from. I am proud to have gotten through that, but my father tends to see my past as wrought with weakness and failure, which is heartbreaking for me. My mother tells me she is proud just to know that I am keeping myself as healthy and happy as possible and working hard at school. I have a good relationship with my parents now. The best I have ever had with them, and that has made my life much easier. No matter how much I dislike their previous treatment of me, I try to let my resentment go, and I am very appreciative for the ways in which they have helped me. Still, at one time they were ashamed of me for what I was going through, and that hurt, and is exactly the sort of behavior that reinforces the taboo.

Mental illness is incredibly difficult for everyone, but especially so for teens who are trying to cope with the symptoms that are presenting themselves, especially if they are undiagnosed and unaware that they could have a serious illness. I wish I could reach out to every parent. My advice to all parents is not original: show unconditional love. It’s the most basic rule of parenting. Love means helping your son or daughter through every trial and tribulation he/she faces. Love means making sure you know how your son or daughter is, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Love means that when your son or daughter is hurting or struggling, you help by showing your care instead of criticizing. This seems obvious. However, depression in teenagers usually presents itself with extreme irritability and sometimes aggression, which can easily be mistaken for teen angst/rebellion/rudeness. Before you tell your kid to stop being a brat, look at the other signs. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If your child threatens to or tries to commit suicide, address the issue. Often the best thing to do is take him/her to the hospital. If you do not want to do that or call the police, you need to get your son/daughter professional psychological help asap. I usually don’t agree with involuntary treatment, but with suicide, this is an absolute necessity. No matter how vicious he/she is about it now, chances are, he/she will thank you years from now. Take your son/daughter seriously about his/her feelings and problems. Be a sounding board. Remind him/her that you are never ashamed.

To young people struggling with mental health problems, my advice is to hold on. I know it seems impossible to get through the day sometimes, but keep in mind that in terms of your social situation and living arrangement, this is the most difficult time of your life, and those aspects will only get better after high school. If there is anything that makes you remotely happy, or anything that you care about, no matter how small, cling to it. An activity, a person, a pet, a future aspiration, a song, a picture, a place, anything, write it down, hang it up in your room, and every time you start to spiral, close your eyes and think about that one thing. It sounds cheesy, but you cannot get through depression without something like this. It’s not going to change your quality of life or fix you at all. It won’t make you feel much happier. But it can just barely carry you through the lowest of lows, and that’s what your survival depends on. Stay away from any people who make you feel unhappy or bad about yourself. Try to learn to be your own best friend. When I was depressed, I was least unhappy when I went walking by myself. Being around others made me feel alone in a painful way; being completely alone felt okay, and often, cleansing. Find comfort in whatever you can (as long as it is healthy and legal). If you have the means, seek professional help, even if your parents don’t think you need it. The phrase “professional help” sounds impersonal and cold. But often, it just means someone who likes to hear you talk about everything and anything, and can give you caring, sympathetic advice. If you feel unloved at home, it can especially help. My first shrink showed more concern about my stability than my parents did at the time. She was the only warm, non-judgmental, sympathetic person that I had to talk to.

Who knows if the stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness will ever disappear? I often think that if it was going to, it would have by now. It’s hard to hold on to hope that society will someday treat the mentally ill the way we deserve to be treated. Even celebrities who are taking up the cause don’t seem to be reaching people. All we can do is try to educate others. We have experience that the most educated psychiatrists and psychologists cannot truly convey to others. There are movements for our cause, and they are pushing hard. I believe that the single most important thing we can do to help our fellow mentally ill folks is to educate others about our personal experiences and show them that we can be mentally ill and still be functional, kind, friendly, fun, smart, loving, caring people. Then, perhaps, a change will come.

British Study found here.

Mental Health Statistics Page here.

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