I remember when I had my first blood test to determine my cholesterol levels. After finding out the results, my officemate at work and I talked about them for nearly an hour. She shared her numbers, I shared mine, and we discussed ways she was working on keeping hers within the normal range. As we were talking about it, another colleague came in and shared HER issues surrounding cholesterol. Genetics doesn't work in my favor with cholesterol, and, knowing my father had been battling high numbers, I talked to him about what medication he was on and the dosage. I wasn't embarrassed about sharing my results (226, by the way), and no one else seemed to care about discussing their numbers and experiences with me either.
Fast forward to January 2015. The church I attend addressed a different mental health issue each week of this month. Every week the sermon focused on a particular illness, such as addiction. An expert associated with each illness provided education to the church members for those interested (and every one of those presentations had a room packed full of people). Finally, there were opportunities for discussion groups during the week for those wishing to share their experiences and find support. I was asked to attend the discussion groups as a nurse to help answer any potential health-related questions that may have come up.
During one week, the topic was depression. I was particularly interested in this as I had experience with depression both personally, in my family and with friends and colleagues. The group discussions went well. Those present were very open about their experiences and felt a sense of relief that they could tell their story in a safe place. And each story was very different from the next. But a friend of mine at the church who I knew had depression didn't come to a discussion group. She was even in the building during one of the groups, and she sat alone in the church lounge during that time instead. Her response when I asked why she didn't attend a group meeting: she didn't want anyone to know she had depression. She was afraid people would think about her differently and talk about it behind her back. Sadly, she's not alone.
Nearly a quarter of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. According to the World Health Organization, four of the 10 leading causes of disability in the U.S. are mental disorders. Depression is at the top. These are not rare illnesses. If you don't have one, it's highly likely a friend or family member does.
I'm not going to talk about mental illness statistics, symptoms or the latest medications. I'm concerned with how we approach mental illnesses as a community. We rarely talk about our personal experiences with mental illnesses like we do with others. Why is it such a secret? I think the answer is complex. Many people feel like mental illness is embarrassing. And the majority of those who have experienced it have felt discriminated against at some time, further pushing them into silence.
All of this secrecy surrounding mental illness CAN stop. If you have a mental disorder, it can be incredibly hard to share it with others. But I bet if you did, you'd be surprised how many others have it as well. A psychiatrist acquaintance of mine tells his new patients to go to work and say, for example, "I'm on a new medication for my depression. Has anyone else been on this one before?" Those that follow his advice usually come back surprised at how many positive responses they get.
It becomes harder when people, trying to be nice, make unhelpful comments like, "Maybe you just need to work harder at being happy." For those of us who don't have a mental disorder but struggle with what to say to someone that does--we should think about it like any other illness. What would you say to someone who has cancer? You would probably tell them that you were there for them. That's exactly what you should say to a person with a mental illness. If you wouldn't make the same comment to someone with cancer or heart disease, then don't make it to someone with a mental illness.
For those of us afflicted with a mental illness, we might have to cut everyone else a little bit of slack. They may make an unhelpful comment, but we can attempt to understand that they are trying and the hurt they may inflict is unintentional. It'll take practice and time and their part, and patience and maybe some guidance on ours.
Mental illnesses are physical illnesses occurring in the brain. There are no blood tests that will allow us to put numbers on them, like cholesterol levels. That makes them more difficult for many to comprehend. But we can understand them better by pushing away the stigma and talking about them. Let's bring those illnesses into the light and out of the darkness.