Normalize Mental Illness; Not Just Mental Health

Mental Health (adjacent to Mental Illness) seems to be quite the trending topic over the last few years; and that is amazing! For a long time, the discussion of mental health was taboo. We’ve seen an uprising of more people being vocal about this topic whether it’s celebrity or your favorite social media influencers. However, while opening the conversation up and bringing awareness to mental health is important; we’d be remiss to leave mental illness out of the conversation. What do I mean by that? So happy you asked.

Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

Mental health as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is:

noun: mental health

  1. a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.

Mental health is simply the condition of one’s mental or emotional well-being. This is a very general category; mental health can be in great condition or not so great. Opening discussions about caring for one’s mental health was obviously needed. Many people had no idea how powerful the act of just considering the health of your mind can have a significant impact on your wellness.

So why is mental illness different? As outlined by psychiatry.org : Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.

Mental illness is when there is ACTUALLY an issue with the mind that affects every aspect of an individual’s life. It is no longer just a general condition; it’s an actual illness and can vary in intensity. With mental illness there is greater stigma, and suddenly the romanticized notion of self care and mental health doesn’t seem to apply to the actual illness of the mind.

A Few Facts

According to Psychiatry.org:

  • nearly one in five (19 percent) U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness
  • one in 24 (4.1 percent) has a serious mental illness*
  • one in 12 (8.5 percent) has a diagnosable substance use disorder

One in five may not seem like much, after all it’s only 19 percent of the U.S population; but it’s 51.5 million people.Think about that number and how large it actually is. It’s most definitely nothing to sneeze at.

The Problem

The fact that 51.5 million people in the U.S (not even the world) are living with mental illness and yet it is STILL heavily stigmatized. How often do we hear jokes where calling someone crazy, or bipolar is considered a punchline? The symptoms of SMI (serious mental illness) are often demonized so badly that those who deal with these issues don’t feel like it’s safe to talk about. Out of the 51.5 million with mental illness; only 23 million of these individuals have received treatment for their condition.

Mental illness is often met with derision from those closest to the individual suffering. As much information that is available in regards to mental illness; very few people seem to want to learn. They much rather dismiss it or lock “the crazy” people up with little to no concern for their actual well being.

Mental illness is not something that can be packaged in a cute and palatable way. Mental illness is an undesirable condition and unfortunately the society we live in only enforces the stigma by silencing the voices of those who suffer.

My Experience

In the late spring or 2012, just a week shy of celebrating my anniversary with hubby; I was committed to the psychiatric ward of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia PA. After 3 weeks of insomnia, I was losing my ability to function. I was fatigued but unable to sleep well. My anxiety was through the roof and my depression was getting worse. I had gone to the ER looking for some assistance with sleep; and instead I was asked to voluntarily be admitted.

I agreed because the God’s honest truth is that was experiencing suicidal ideation.

What I thought was going to be just a 72 hour hold ended up being a 6 day stay. I needed therapy, medication and a safe place to explain what was going on with me. I was honestly relieved to be some place where I could actually get help. I was fortunate that while my husband didn’t know how to fix me; he understood that I needed his support. And he was on board with my plan of care detailed by my team while I was there.

During my therapy sessions I realized just how much I had been holding in, and how much shame I was shrouded in because I felt broken and inadequate. At the time, my circle of friends did not understand what I was experiencing and offering me a true support was beyond the scope of their abilities because they couldn’t fathom what I was talking about. Some of my well meaning friends even dismissed my feelings as “white people” problems.

For awhile, I anonymously kept a blog on Tumblr where I would share my battle with my mental illness. In 2014 after a traumatic experience, I decided to start a new blog on WordPress where I openly began to share my journey with my mental illness. I decided to that in order for me to be able to normalize my situation I needed to start talking about it. In time, I got brave enough to share it publicly on my social media which allowed for family and friends alike to start getting an understanding of what mental illness feels like for some of us.

The Wrap Up

I have been fortunate in the sense that I’ve found my outlet to share my journey with mental illness. I have a support system in place that I’m beyond grateful for.

But it’s not that way for everyone.

Too many suffer in silence, struggle with symptoms that people don’t care enough to try and understand because mental illness has been stigmatized so badly. There is not enough support for those who need it. There isn’t enough conversation about it. We get the watered down version neatly packed during Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s simply not enough.

How can you do your part? Actively listen to your friends or family when they share their illness. Don’t use mental illness as an insult or punchline. Encourage people to actively seek treatment. And maybe, just maybe, if it applies to you; seek help for your own illness.

No shame implied. Not here. This is a safe space.