By Vanessa Copeland
This is a topic that is very close to me. As I sit down to write this blog I struggle to find the right words. I want you, the reader, to leave with a better understanding, even if only slightly, of mental illness and the importance of mental wellness.
In my late teens, I was diagnosed with Massive Depressive Disorder. It is an illness I battled well into my twenties, and one I nearly lost on more than one occasion. It was a very difficult time for me. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I tried to rationalize my feelings, I tried to mask my feelings, but mostly I tried to ignore them. When I have had physical ailments, I have never once questioned making a doctor’s appointment, taking medicine, recognizing something was wrong. Why then do we dismiss mental ailments? This brings me to the first thing I wish my friends knew about mental illness.
- Mental Illness is real
I believe one of the main contributing factors to the negative stigma placed on mental illness is due to non-belief. A lot of people do not want to recognize mental illness as legitimate. They see it simply as mental weakness. I remember being told, “When I feel down I just go for a walk and then I feel better.” As if some small form of exercise is all it takes. You would never tell a cancer patient, “When I feel rundown I just get some more sleep and then I feel better.” Mental illness can be just as debilitating, wreak just as much havoc on your life, and lead to death just as much as any physical disease; yet no one treats it as such. Even I, a sufferer of mental illness, was ashamed. I was ashamed to ask for help. I was ashamed to admit to my friends, to my family, hell, to myself that I needed help.
Unlike physical illness, our first instinct when it comes to mental illness is to figure out the “Why.” Why do I feel this way? Why can’t I get out of bed? Why don’t I enjoy the things I used to enjoy? Why do I feel so hopeless when my life is so good? This brings me to the second thing I wish my friends knew about mental illness.
- Most times there is no “Why”
One of the more difficult things about my illness was trying to make sense of something for my loved ones that I myself did not understand. While a doctor may look for the root cause of a physical illness, very few friends will ask you why you got breast cancer. This is partly to do with the actual science of mental illness. In the grand scheme of things, it’s relatively new. Also, I believe, due to the stigma on mental illness, research is grossly underfunded when compared to research for other diseases. Another issue is that Massive Depressive Disorder for me does not look the same as Massive Depressive Disorder for you. Mental illness is an invisible disease that many do not understand and that rarely looks the same.
One of the things that mental illness has in common with physical illness is the requirement of participation from the inflicted for recovery to be successful. This brings me to the third thing I wish my friends knew about mental illness.
- I need your support to recover
I think the thing I hear most often that makes me realize that people do not understand mental illness is the following statement: “Suicide is selfish.” Few people will blame a cancer patient for stopping treatment, for asking for a merciful end, for giving up the fight with their disease. And yet, it is commonly believed that losing your battle with mental illness, or giving up your fight, is a selfish act.
The best thing you can do for a loved one suffering from mental illness is to just be there. Don’t try to fix them. Don’t make them feel guilty or weak for seeking treatment. Just be there when they need you to. Check on them often. Encourage them to be an active participant in their recovery. Ask them what they need from you. And above all else, be patient.
I am unsure why it seems like human nature is to fear and hate that which we do not understand. But mental illness is another victim of this human reaction. Educate yourself. Practice empathy. And above all else, love each other. Even on the ugly days. Especially on the ugly days.