Life with mental health, like any other illness, comes with its own unique set of struggles one must learn to overcome. Yet, for many, the biggest struggle it seems is the way in which people treat, speak to, and see those who live every day with the diseases. The dialogue that surrounds mental health can be quite discouraging for those who have the diseases, which makes it incredibly difficult for them to reach out, get help, and get support. One of the worst infractions I notice is when the topic of mental health comes up, we use a vastly different dialogue for it versus when someone has a physical illness. When someone has a physical illness, they are met with support, with empathy, with understanding, with so many wonderful things. Yet, when someone has a mental illness they are met with ire, with things like “Just be positive.” “So and so has it worse than you.” “You should try X, Y, or Z.” “Oh so and so has it, and they treated it like this.” “Why can’t you just be happy?” Honestly, I could go on for hours with the asinine things that have been said to myself as well as others like me, and while most mean well, they do not understand how their words, their actions, and their suggestions make those with the diseases feel. Many treat us like we are pariahs, like we are something to be feared, like we are broken, like we are something that must be fixed. Especially with all the mass shootings going on in the US right now, the first thing that most people talk about is how the shooter must have or did have some form of mental illness. Yet, the conversation we should be having is how we can better assist those with poor mental health rather than blaming the diseases further, rather than creating more of a divide between those who live with poor mental health and those who don’t, rather than villainizing the diseases and those of us who live with it, and rather than further perpetuating the fears and stigmas surrounding it.
Rather, a more productive approach when speaking with or dealing with someone who has mental health would be to simply listen, to give love, to give empathy, to give support, and to be understanding. While we know your suggestions are with the best intentions, we know our bodies and our diseases, and chances are we have tried just about everything you could suggest to us. Plus, the diseases manifest differently in each person, which means what works for one, will not necessarily work for all. It is far more helpful to know that someone is there just to listen, to let us be ourselves without fear of judgment, to love us despite the ways in which so many see us as flawed. Do not try to fix us, for we are not broken, we are simply different. We see, we feel, we experience the world in our own unique way, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong. We cannot change nor control the fact that we have these diseases any more than you can change or control the color of your skin. A more helpful dialogue is “I am here.” “I see you.” “I love you.” “It is okay to be sad, to be upset, to be whatever it is you are feeling.” Those phrases mean the world to someone who lives with mental health. Just like you, we want to be loved, to be accepted, to be happy, to experience life and all its wonders, we want families, we want to create a future, we have hopes and dreams. Life is just a bit more challenging for us, but it is still beautiful. Just simply hold us when we are sad, love us on the days when we forget to love themselves, and by golly have a lot of patience, because we are trying our best to overcome this.
I consider my diseases both a blessing and a curse, because while it tests my willpower, my resolve, my patience, and my belief in myself, it has also given me a perspective that offers me a deeper level of empathy, of understanding, of insight into the world and the struggles of others. There are many times where my reactions are over the top, where I am too sensitive, where my anger may get the best of me, many times where I am simply too much. But, with that also comes the ability to feel love so deeply that you are able to see the good in others when they do not themselves see it, that you are able to find the beauty in even the most seemingly mundane of things. With it comes the ability to feel such joy that your whole body is ignited with such an infectious energy that draws in others. With it comes a fierce loyalty that is not often seen these days, as we know all too well how it feels to be alone, to have no one, to have nothing, so we work extra hard to stick by someone’s side. Living life with the diseases comes with just as much beauty as it does turmoil.
Recently there have been quite a few high profile suicides, which has opened up the dialogue profusely, but is has also saddened me to see how much misinformation is still out there, how much ignorance still remains, how little people understand the depths to which mental health can affect someone. There are 44,965 suicides a year, which totals out to about 123 suicides a day, which is roughly one suicide every 12 minutes. Twenty-two of those are from Veterans alone, and that is just here in the US. Globally, the numbers are closer to 800,000 a year, which equals out to one every 40 seconds, making it the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15-24. (*Statistics pulled from Save.org & AFSP.org). Those are some pretty high and heartbreaking numbers, to say the least. But if we start treating and speaking about mental health and those who live with it differently, we can make a difference in those numbers, we can prevent many of them from ever happening.
The comment that hits me the hardest would be when those who have never had to live with these sorts of diseases, those who have never had to feel pain so deep in their soul that their entire body hurts, those who have never had to feel such unimaginable sorrow that it is like all the love, light, and joy in the world was sucked out, those whose brains have not told them on a daily basis non-stop that they are unworthy, they are unlovable, and that their family and friends would be better off without them, those who have never suffered for so long that suicide feels like the only escape, say that it is selfish. Suicide is anything but selfish. It is one of the most difficult choices for someone who lives with these diseases will ever make. It is not the easy way out, and it is not done with the intention of hurting others. For when you feel everything so deeply, when you have tried medication after medication, when you have gone from therapist to therapist, when you have been suffering for so many years, when you have fought relentlessly to no avail, suicide feels like your only option at that point. Your brain spends an inexorable amount of time telling you such terrible things, convincing you that you truly are alone, that those you love would truly be better off without you. To take your own life is something that one ponders for many of nights, one weighs profusely. It is not like we simply wake up one day and decide that we are going to kill ourselves. It is that we have reached our limit, it is that we do not see any other way out, it is that our minds, our bodies, our very souls are completely drained. There have been two suicides in my family, in addition to the fact that I, myself, have tried far more times than I care to admit. Each one of those rocked my family, rocked me to my core, they changed us in unimaginable ways, but we also learned from them. We grew from them. Now, I am in no way advocating suicide here either, as I want everyone to have the chance to overcome their diseases, or at the very least to learn to live with them as I have, but I also want people to understand the depths of despair one is under when they decide to take their own life. It is not a choice made on a whim, nor is it something someone should be shamed for.
For me personally, I am very open about my own battles with my mental health, because I know that while it is far from an easy conversation to have, it is a necessary one. By sharing all that I do, it is my hope that I can show others who may be suffering that they are not alone, that I can show those who do not live with these horrible diseases just how stressful, painful, and many times debilitating it can be as well as much it can control your life. It is my hope that by sharing my stories, I will help erase some of the stigma surrounding mental health and those who live with it. I will be able to educate people on the various diseases, how they can help someone who may have them, and how they can have a deeper understanding of what it is to have any sort of mental health illness. It is my greatest hope that by sharing my the struggles, the triumphs, the obstacles, the highs, and the lows of my journey, that I will give hope to another, that I will give insight to those who want to learn more, that I will show people that while we are sick, we are still perfectly imperfect in our own way and that it a beautiful thing.