Two words are getting tossed around like confetti right now, and I’d like to stop the “celebration.”
I’ve been open about my mental health because I want to help erase the stigma of asking for help. Of just admitting you need help. I want people to know that it’s perfectly normal, and perfectly OK, if you’re not OK. Everyone has their struggles. To be imperfect is to be human. And we’re all in this together. I want to open doors of acceptance and help people understand they are not alone.
But lately, the conversations around mental health seem to be shutting doors and only adding to the stigma. “Mental health” is what a lot of people are blaming for violence. Online, people are saying our nation’s terrible “mental health” is a result of bad parenting, entitled children and Godless, un-Christian living.
Listen, I KNOW a lot of friends (and family members) are going to read this and say, “But that’s not what I meant!” Or “I know that’s not you!” I know, I know. None of your posts are personal. But I have a hard time not taking them personally.
I want to share with you a little insight into my mental health “journey” (hate that word, but I don’t have a better one. Adventure? Voyage? Trek? Whatever) as of late. And I hope my insight will help you understand what you’re saying when you say mental health is to blame for so many bad things in our country. I’m not looking to change your political opinion. Just give you a littler perspective.
Some of Us Need Glasses ... and LexaproFor some people, mental health issues are a short-lived episode. They feel bad, they seek treatment. They feel better. For others of us, it’s a several-year or even lifelong struggle. We can’t just “get over it” or “move on.” Sometimes, we have to accept our mental health as just another part of us. Like bad knees or a bad back.
I’m going to tell you about my secret TV obsession: When I was on maternity leave, I fell in love with the Netflix series “One day at a Time.” It’s a hilarious family comedy. It’s genius and heartfelt. And so, so funny. Seriously, I found myself literally laughing out loud sooooo many times. The second season came out in January, and it’s even more hilarious than the first - if that’s possible.
Anywhooo … aside from being funny, I love the way the show portrays the mental health struggles of the main character, Penelope. She’s a war veteran with PTSD and eventually seeks out group therapy and medication. Happy ending, right? Not exactly … In the second season, she decides she’s ready to be done. She doesn’t want to rely on therapy or her meds anymore. She’s happy. She’s fine.
Until she’s not. She quits her treatments cold turkey (which is pretty much NEVER advised) and finds herself in a darker hole than ever before. It was very un-funny to see those scenes. It was painful, yet touching. Because I knew how she felt. Penelope laid in bed for days and couldn’t understand why she just couldn’t be happy. Why she couldn’t be normal.
Sure, she’d been through some stuff in the past, but now she had two wonderful kids, a great career and so much other great stuff going for her. Yet, she didn’t feel worthy. She didn’t feel she belonged in any of the joy around her.
Those scenes? WHOA. They hit me like a ton of bricks. Penelope, girl, I GET IT. I’ve been there. Maybe I haven’t laid in bed for days, but I do know what it’s like to live in a fog like that for months. MONTHS. And it’s awful.
When Penelope finally admits to her friend Schneider that she needs help, he helps her understand her condition. As an alcoholic, he’s accepted he can never drink again. Maybe as a person who struggles with depression, she could never stop taking her meds. In true Schneider fashion, he breaks the tension with a laugh. He removes his eye glasses and says, “Want to go for a drive?” Of course not - he needs his glasses to see! Just like some people need medication to make their brain function normally. Get it?
Oh man, I think I was bawling by the time that scene was over. You see, I’ve been wondering lately if I need to quit my medication. I feel pretty darn good. I’m finally healing from my most recent surgery. And my hormones are finally starting to level out as I’ve cut back to breastfeeding only twice a day.
But … BUT. What if I only feel fine because Lexapro makes me feel that way? What if I can’t make it “on my own”? I have to admit, the societal judgment of forever needing medication for anxiety and depression … that sort of bothers me. You always hear “success stories” of people weaning off their medication. So if you can’t wean off your meds are you a failure? Am I a failure because I need a daily pill to feel normal?
The answer is, obviously, no. As Schneider pointed out, if you need glasses, you don’t stop wearing them and try to walk around in a blurry haze. The same goes for treatment of your mental health conditions.
Now, if you’re lucky enough to only need temporary treatment for mental health issues, great! I’m happy for you. I would never wish long-term struggles on anyone. But society needs to understand that some conditions - some people - are just better with proper treatment. Whether that’s talk therapy or medication or a specially trained dog.
Let’s TalkWith that understanding - of how mental illness isn't something you can just fix and be done with - I hope you’ll think twice before you talk about “mental health” again. Especially in reference to violence crimes. Because mental health is a FAR bigger issue. Most of us struggling with mental health are NOT criminals. I have zero violent tendencies and would never harm myself or anyone else! But I understand my situation is not the situation for everyone. There ARE extreme cases.
So here are a few ideas/discussion points/suggestions to think about in our current conversations. Just think.
- The idea of barring people with mental illness from owning weapons seems simple. But is it? What if they have a depressive episode, seek treatment and return to their regular life? Can they be removed from the “list”? (I've read comparisons to the no-fly list.)And who puts people on the list to begin with? Are therapists and doctors now enforcing the law? This proposal needs a little more thought, in my opinion.
- If such a list exists, would it deter people from getting the help they need? We already look at people with mental illness as “less than” in our society. I feel this would only add to the stigma and create a bigger problem. I’m already tired of the discussions that compare the mentally unstable with mass murderers, so I can’t imagine how things will feel when we’re legally separating the crazy from the sane.
- If mental health is so important, why does our health care system continually restrict access to treatment? Do you know how hard it is to find a therapist? Oh goodness! Even as someone with “good insurance,” it took me months to narrow my options down to a counselor who was:
- In close proximity to my home or work
- On my insurance plan
- Accepting new patients
- Someone I felt comfortable talking to
- If we’re going to propose better mental health care, then we have to propose MORE opportunities and FEWER barriers for treatment. And yes, that includes costs. Therapy and medication are not cheap. If we want our society to improve, then we, as a society, need to help make treatment possible for everyone.
- If we’re going to remove the barriers/stigma surrounding mental health care, then we have to discuss it more often. Not just when we want to blame mental health for heinous acts. Not just when it’s easy or convenient. You have to be willing to admit that mental health is an issue every single day. Like I said above, it’s not always an “episode.” For many people, it’s just another characteristic of who they are, like a birth mark or a bad back. We can’t only want to deal with those people when their mental health is good. We have to be willing to step up and have tough conversations when things are bad, too. Sometimes, you don’t even have to say anything. You just have to be there. To sit in the quiet and remind them they are not alone.
- Finally, please stop implying that mental illness is a result of bad parenting, poor education, or a non-religious upbringing. Guess what? I have good parents, a college degree, and I go to church. But I still have a mental illness. And I believe I’m a good person who can raise good children. Also, people with bad parents, no education and no religious beliefs can be wonderful people, too! Think before you speak and judge the lives of others.