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Those who know me well are aware that I am extremely passionate about understanding mental illness and how to promote psychological wellness. Having dealt with it in different forms on a personal as well as having loved people who suffer(ed) mental illness, I can definitely attest to how undervalued mental wellness can be. Growing up as a black, Haitian-American, and Christian, my eyes were opened up to the large misconceptions that exist in cultural communities where I function.
Allow me to share five things to keep in mind for those looking from the outside-in or those who have not suffered or had to love someone with mental illness.
1. Mental Illness is an illness just like cancer, diabetes, and high-blood pressure.
It puzzles me to see how people downplay the idea of mental illness as if a quick nap and some chamomile tea will make it all go away. But, on the other hand, we will take other illnesses like diabetes and blood pressure seriously. Mental illness deserves the same level of attention.
While we’re on that topic, there is nothing wrong with getting help. Mental health professionals are as valuable as a primary care physician or specialist. If you know someone needs help, encourage them to seek help. If you know someone who has chosen to get help, be supportive in their journey.
2. When you don’t reach out to someone because you think they “look” okay, you may be overlooking their greatest pain or struggle.
About two years ago, when my best friend committed suicide, I decided to open up about the topic of mental illness as well as my personal struggle with it. I cannot count the amount of times people said that they would have never guessed that I was going through it if I’d never told them.
That’s the thing with mental illness. It does not a definitive look, and that look may not always be as obvious to the public. It doesn’t suggest that an individual is always falling out, screaming, yelling, and having panic attacks or seizures. Who would’ve guessed that Kate Spade, Robin Williams, or Anthony Bourdain, among other people, were silently dying inside despite the smile they may have kept on in public? Some of the strongest people are dealing with the hardest battles.
3. Mental Illness does not speak to your character or your faith in a higher power, it speaks to your psychological state.
Growing up Christian, I always would hear people attribute mental illness to a lack of faith in God or having a high level of pride. As mentioned before, mental illness does not discriminate, and unfortunately, even those kindest, humble, faith abiding people suffer from it. I remember reading a study about pastors and I learned that there are a large percentage of pastors who are spiritually, emotionally and mentally empty, because they are required to give so much of themselves to others and rarely have a safe haven to be vulnerable and have someone pour into them. While someone’s willingness or determination may help in their healing process, it does not make them immune to the voices in the head, panic attacks, or moments of psychosis.
4. What you may consider as someone’s "dramatics" can be a serious cry for help.
I know the feeling of being very expressive, loud, and talkative. I am also hyper-reactive as well, so when I have a breakdown, all hell breaks loose. I also know the feeling of becoming used to suffering in silence because I realized some of the individuals I wished heard me out, didn’t take me seriously. I didn’t realize how scary it was until I saw it happen to a loved one who almost committed suicide and eventually my best friend who took his own life. Show understanding, and show compassion, you never know how much of a difference your attentiveness can make.
5. There is nothing more valuable than a human life.
My mother tells me this all the time, and it’s this lesson that has encouraged me to live, laugh, and love everyday as if it is my last. I always think back to the last few months of my best friend’s life and the circumstances that would have kept me from being there for him one last time, not knowing it would be my last time seeing him. When you’ve experienced the loss of someone close to your heart, you realize that there is no job, money, fame or opportunity that you wouldn’t give up to have them back. Love and show compassion with no regrets.