There has been so much talk about mental health recently. So many people have views on the this topic. What has been interesting to me is the amount of people who advocate for better mental health, but are uncomfortable with the realities of a mental illness.
There seems to be a desire amongst the social norm that all people who suffer an illness are an ‘inspiration’ or are ‘heroes’. As though they are martyrs for the cause of wellness and should be applauded for their suffering. It gives the impression that there is some sort of moral value in suffering. As though you gain brownie points for suffering. The reality is that suffering sucks. Big time. Whether it’s physical health, or mental health, it’s brutal and demoralising and horrific. A person can’t be ‘so brave’ and ‘an inspiration’ when they literally have no choice and, if given the choice, would obviously choose not to be living in hell. Overcoming the obstacles is commendable, but the suffering itself is not. There’s no glamour around pain.
Which brings me to my next point – the one nobody likes to talk about – that often a person’s poor behaviour is a direct result of their mental illness. Let’s take Kanya West as an example. He lives with bipolar disorder. Regardless of his status, he lives with a mental illness and has just gone through a very public manic episode. Many people laughed, made jokes, or said something along the lines of ‘his bipolar wasn’t responsible for him doing stupid stuff’. Wrong. Is it responsible for everything? No. Do I like the man? No. But the reality is he has manic episodes which likely account for a lot of the irrational things he has been doing and saying for a number of years. This then leads people to say ‘he should be on medication’ and it stuns me that people are so uncomfortable with the real symptoms of mental illness that they can only tolerate it if that person is drugged. I’m not going to go into the medication debate right now, but the decision to medicate will always be personal.
The real question is: why are people so uncomfortable? I’ve thought about this, especially because there’s a pattern forming where ‘good’ and ‘bad’ symptoms are being chosen. Why? Because people with no mental illness don’t like it if mentally ill people don’t fall into the martyr narrative. If a mentally ill person is not performing their wellness, or ‘putting on a brave face’, then they are not being ‘heroes’ and they obviously are ‘not fighting hard enough’. When a mentally ill person does not perform as a martyr, it makes mentally well people feel helpless, they don’t like it, and they then blame the mentally ill person for their discomfort. Now, given all that, how can anyone possibly expect a mentally ill person to open up and talk?
The current conversation about mental health revolves far too much around the comfort of the mentally well. When a person dies by suicide, it makes a mentally well person feel guilty and angry (alongside very real heartbreak for the people who loved them). Guilt because they feel that they were supposed to do something more, and then anger because the dead person has made them feel that way. Thus, the ‘let’s talk about it’ becomes more about mentally well people feeling that they ‘done all they could’. Except, too often, people don’t want to hear the darker thoughts – because that makes mentally well people too uncomfortable.
And what happens when mentally ill people make people too uncomfortable? A few things. The first reaction is often an attack on the mentally ill person along the lines of ‘you need to snap out of it’ or ‘get a grip’ or ‘try harder’. The second reaction is ‘this needs fixed’ without any acknowledgement that sometimes mental illness can never be fully fixed – often it’s just about managing and maintaining the condition. The third reaction is ‘you need to be involuntarily hospitalised’ – literally removing that person from society to achieve this magical fix – which is very difficult to achieve without the person’s consent. None of these reactions are entirely helpful (unless a person has not already spoken with professionals or is actively a danger to themselves or others) because it makes mentally ill people feel LESS inclined to talk.
It’s exhausting to try and fake wellness that you don’t feel so that others don’t feel uncomfortable. There’s something very strange about asking any sick person to put on a performance to spare the feelings of those around them. When a person asks another person how they are, what they want to hear is ‘I’m fine’. Mentally ill people know this, and until people are prepared to hear ‘I’m horrific’ without judgement, the conversation about mental health will remain stunted.