Why People Don’t Believe in Mental Illness
Some people just don’t believe that mental illness exists. There are reasons for this. Not good reasons, but reasons.
I recently saw a meme that blamed mental illness on capitalism. There was no mental illness per se, only the toxic effects of a culture that compels us to put up with overwork and underpay, exploitation and inescapable drudgery. The stress of dealing with these conditions is what causes us – an increasing number of sufferers – to feel depression and anxiety.
There may be something to this, sort of. Environmental conditions that lead to stress and anxiety can certainly make mental illness worse, particularly those like bipolar disorder and other mood disorders. And, while capitalism may or may not be the cause, the majority of us are working harder with less to show for it than ever before. But the majority of us are not mentally ill.
My mother may have bought into this philosophy. She knew I had mental troubles, but she thought that if only I got a better job, I would be all better. Admittedly, finding a better-paying job that was less stressful would improve anyone’s mood, but it can do little or nothing for a clinical mood disorder.
Then there are people who seem to “believe” in mental illness, but really don’t. These are the people who acknowledge that mental illness exists, but think that it is a “choice” – that any person can choose happiness, health, or sanity merely by an effort of will. Those of us who can’t “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” are simply not trying hard enough. The “choose happiness” people don’t seem to get that for most of us, our only choice is whether to get help from someone else – a doctor who prescribes a psychotropic, a therapist or counselor who listens or advises, or even a friend who reaches out.
And, of course, there are people who acknowledge mental illness, but think it is a good thing, the fount of creative brilliance. They point to Vincent van Gogh and his amazing art. They forget about the suffering, the self-harm, and the suicide.
But, romanticizing mental illness and even revering it do nothing to help people who actually have psychiatric conditions. It’s true that some people with mental disorders – Sylvia Plath and Dale Chihuly, to name two in addition to van Gogh – have created works of great art, beauty, and significance. But it’s certainly valid to wonder what they would have produced if they had not had the trials of mental illness to deal with. Would their work have been less inspired or more? It’s impossible to say. Personally, I believe that mental illness interferes with creativity more often than it enables it.
But the most common reason, I believe, that people don’t recognize the existence of mental illness is that it has never touched their lives, isn’t a part of their perceptions. A relative of mine once watched a talk show where women recounted dire experiences of having hysterectomies. “Those women are such liars,” my relative said. “I had a hysterectomy and it was nothing like that.” Her perception of reality – her personal experience – was extended to the whole world.
Similarly, when someone has no direct experience of mental illness, either by having a disorder themselves or by knowing someone very close to them with the disorder, the reality of mental illness itself comes into doubt. “No one I know has it, so no one does.”
Sometimes people who believe such things are capable of changing their minds, though. If a woman goes through a profound, long-lasting exogenous depression after the death of her husband, she may have more sympathy and understanding for people who have profound, long-lasting endogenous depression, or major depressive illness, as it’s more commonly known. Or a dear friend’s struggles to help a schizophrenic son may awaken her to what mental illness truly can be. Once it touches her life in some way, mental illness becomes real.
And since, according to statistics, one in four or five Americans will experience some type of mental or emotional disturbance in their lifetimes, the odds increase that people’s personal experience with mental illness will also increase accordingly.
In the meantime, those of us in the mental health community can help spread the word that mental illness does exist, that it affects the lives of millions of people, and that even people who are not directly affected need to understand how easily it can happen to someone they know.
Blaming mental illness on capitalism, overwork, or an insane world may be easy and may make us feel better by comparison, but it will do nothing to address the actual problem.