My friend Martin Baker (https://www.gumonmyshoe.com/) recently posted a series of prompts for mental health bloggers. Number 29 was: Can you ever really understand if you’ve not experienced mental ill health yourself? Here are my thoughts.
In general, I do believe that having a mental illness yourself is the best and perhaps the only way to truly understand the reality of mental illness – the daily struggles, the need for self-care, the loneliness, and the stigma.
I’ve noted before that my mother-in-law didn’t really understand the concept of mental illness. It was like the time when she saw some women on the Phil Donahue show who were talking about their hysterectomies and the pain and suffering they went through. “Those women are such liars,” she said. “I had it done and it wasn’t like that at all.” It’s a matter of assuming your own experience is true for the rest of the world as well, a common logical fallacy. (Later she came around to believing mental illness existed, at least. I attribute this to spending time with me and my husband and reading one of the books I wrote, Bipolar Me.)
Even my husband – who has lived with me for 40 years, sympathized greatly, and helped me unselfishly – didn’t really “get depression” until he got depression. It was a situational depression that deepened into clinical depression. He’s still on medication for it. I remember him saying that he felt miserable and despondent, and had for months. “Try doing it for years,” I said. “I couldn’t,” he replied.
With a person who doesn’t understand – or even believe in – mental illness, there’s not a lot you can do to change their mind. The images and stories they get from the news, movies, novels, and TV shows tell them that anyone with a mental illness is likely to be a serial killer or a crazed gunman, probably psychotic or at least delusional. Conversely, they can believe that any notorious evildoer must have been mentally ill and probably “off their meds” at the time the atrocity occurred.
We often say that education is the answer. Informing people about the reality of mental illness is supposed to raise their consciousness and help eradicate stigma. That’s all well and good, but getting accurate and informative materials into people’s hands is not that easy. Sure, there are websites, books, and blogs, but the general population simply doesn’t run across these on their own. We who deal with mental illness daily must point them to these resources. Even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll read or interact with the resources. They have to be interested in and open to the topic.
Public awareness campaigns featuring movie stars and top athletes may help in getting the audience to believe in mental illness in others, and even if they have a mental disorder such as depression themselves. Whether these can counteract the inaccurate and insensitive portrayals of mental illness in the media is still, I think, an open question. Even commercials for various medications for psychiatric illnesses can help people understand a little bit more, though I still believe that many of these ads present a less-than-accurate picture of depression, for example, making it seem no worse than a hangover. And many of the ads promote telemedicine sites for those who have – or suspect they have – some sort of mental disorder. They are less useful for the totally uninformed.
Still, we keep trying to inform and educate. But are we shouting down a rabbit hole or into an echo chamber? Maybe seeing posts from Facebook friends who have mental disorders really does help. I know that some of my Facebook friends have said that my posts and blogs on bipolar disorder have helped them learn.
But in general, I’m pessimistic about people understanding mental illness until or unless they experience it for themselves or in their own families – and maybe not even then. There are those who deny that they have depression, for example, or who may suspect they have a psychiatric disorder but feel that getting help is “for the weak.”
Or maybe I’m just pessimistic today.
Nevertheless, I’ll go on writing this blog in the hope that it will make a difference to someone.