Over this last holiday season, I was out Christmas shopping with a friend and found myself struggling to find a gift for a co-worker. Another shopper — an older man, overheard me and asked what kind of work my co-worker does. It was late, I was cranky, and I was beyond wanting to socialize, but I politely responded, “they’re a therapist,” all while hoping this time would be different. I always find myself gritting my teeth when I bring up the word therapist because I know it always follows with me having to explain, “no, not a physical therapist. A counselor. A mental health clinician.” The man responded with, “Can I suggest a duck?” After staring blankly at this stranger in front of me whom I naively thought was genuinely being kind and trying to suggest a Christmas present, I replied with a feeble, “Why?,” all while knowing as the word left my lips I wouldn’t like his answer. “Because they’re a quack.” I was in utter shock at how pleased the man was with himself. I flashed him a weak smile and walked away, and let his boisterous laugh fade in the background.
His words still echo in my head over a month after hearing them. You can imagine the bullets I’ve dodged in the form of judgment, criticism, and ignorance — all in regards to the mental health field. Since freshman year of college, I’ve let things roll off my shoulders. I let friends, acquaintances, and family members especially, mock me. I let people tell me that what I was going to school for was useless. That mental illness is not real. That addicts are pathetic. That people who commit suicide are selfish and weak.
For years, I stood on the sidelines and watched people make a mockery out of something that’s important to me. I’ve kept quiet about it. I’ve listened on and smiled politely as people belittled my educational and career choices. I made up excuses for people. It’s a difficult subject matter. Not everyone has the tools to learn what I’ve learned. They just don’t understand. I repeated these sentiments to myself, all while seething on the inside. Because for as long as I’ve been on the sidelines, I’ve been wanting to step into the ring and fight. To defend myself. To defend why I chose to do what I do. To put on my gloves and jump in the ring swinging.
But then I think about the people who are quietly living with mental illness every day. The ones with no one advocating for them. The ones who need someone else to put on those gloves and swing for them. And I take my own selfishness out of wanting to defend my career choices and I realize this is why I am doing it. This is why I need to go in and swing. This is why I need to speak up. This is why I need to get up on my soap box and stick it to that stranger in Hallmark and to every other person who’s ever belittled me, my classmates, my co-workers, or made a mockery out of the field of mental health.
It’s time I start talking, because in the case of mental illness, let’s face it. Ignorance is not bliss.
It’s no secret that mental illness bares the heavy cloak of stigma in our society. There is an ugly shame often linked with being anything other than what is perceived as normal. There’s a wall that needs to be broken down. We need empathy and understanding, but we can’t even begin to cross that threshold until we educate ourselves — we need to voluntarily learn about the various mental health diagnoses – from major depressive disorder to anxiety disorders to post traumatic stress disorder to paranoid schizophrenia to borderline personality disorder — and every single disorder that falls between the covers of the DSM. When we make it a priority to educate ourselves, perhaps we will see more understanding and hear less mockery. Perhaps we will see a shift in adequate insurance coverage for mental health services. Perhaps there will be less fear, mistrust, and violence against people living with mental illness. Perhaps less people will turn their backs on their friends and family members struggling with mental illness.
Stigma keeps people who have mental illness from speaking out and seeking help. Stigma allows people to suffer in silence.
According to NAMI, these are the facts: one in every four adults suffer from mental illness in any given year. One in 17 adults live with a serious mental illness — schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder. Approximately 20% of adolescents between 13 and 18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year. Approximately 60% of adults and nearly 50% of adolescents with a mental illness did not receive treatment in the last year.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, more common than homicide. It is the third leading cause of death for adolescents between the ages of 15 and 24. 90% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder.
With the deaths of beloved actors like Robin Williams — someone the public eye so deeply enamored, and when entertainers like Demi Lovato use their celebrity to speak out about living with mental illness, we’ve started making progress. People are starting to understand that perhaps fame and fortune doesn’t mean mental well-being. That money can’t buy stability. That even people we laughed with for years can suffer tremendously. But there are still people who choose to look past what’s clearly evident. I don’t want to live in a world where I fear my 11 year old sister will be crippled by shame and guilt if she ever feels the thick weight of depression. I don’t want to teach her that it’s okay to turn a blind eye when she sees someone suffering. I don’t want to live in a world where I can’t sit at a table with my family or friends and talk about my work day for fear that someone will make a harsh jab. Someone will tell me that what I do isn’t real. That people seeking therapy are pathetic. Or one of my personal favorites — “how can you be interested in the field of addiction if you’re sitting there with a beer yourself?” I don’t want to live in a world where I feel forced to sit quietly when I hear someone say, “didn’t he think of his family and friends before he killed himself?”
We’ve made movement, but I want more.
As you may or may not know, I held on tight to various dreams growing up — all focused on the idea of writing. Of writing novels, screenplays, tv shows. Of having my words matter to someone. For several reasons, I chose to go to school to become a therapist instead. With both writing and reading fiction, I always loved the idea of character development and seeing how each character changes over the course of their story. In writing and reading creative non-fiction, I focus on reality and on words that heal. On words that matter. I found that my choice has afforded me not only the opportunity to still do projects like this one on the side, but to use what I love about reading and writing and apply it to my career.
I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m still learning every day, and I will still continue to learn for the rest of my life. What I do know is that in the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most remarkable and resilient people I have ever met. I’ve spent time with people who have severe and persistent mental illness, people who are homeless, people who struggle with auditory and visual hallucinations, people who’ve endured trauma after trauma and still wake up every day to face a world that’s been nothing short of cruel to them, people who’ve struggled with addiction, people living with various mental health diagnoses. I’ve worked with people who’ve come so close to losing hope, but still manage to wake up every single day and fight. Since starting graduate school and immersing myself in the field with my internships, I’ve been able to collect stories of triumph, of unrelenting strength, of hope in the face of the unknown. Of bravery. I am a better person now because of what I’ve learned through these interactions.
I choose to be aware. I choose to understand. I choose to empathize.
But I can’t empathize with someone who remains adamant in choosing to stay ignorant. I can’t empathize with someone who chooses to blame people for the suffering they don’t take the time to understand. If you fall into the category of people who scoffed when Robin Williams killed himself, or when Amy Winehouse overdosed, or when Demi Lovato was treated for self-harm, an eating disorder, and bipolar disorder, or when the boy in the town next to you jumped in front of a moving train, or when you see a homeless man on the street, or when you tell someone their pain is not real because it’s not a cut or a scrape or a broken bone, I challenge you to rise above. I challenge you to take a real look at those statistics above — I encourage you to look at those facts, to seek to understand that rather than turn a blind eye to something that can so easily be explained.
We need conversations like this.
We need to fight this war to end mental health stigma. We need to stand up for ourselves when people tell us our careers are useless. We need to advocate for people struggling with mental illness. We need to educate ourselves and the people around us. Without our voices, there will be no more movement. Without our voices, the homeless man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia will get continue to get beat up by a group of teenage boys, as onlookers stand idly on the side. Without our voices, the girl struggling with an eating disorder as a result of post traumatic stress from enduring multiple traumas, will cry herself to sleep at night and hope and pray she doesn’t wake up tomorrow. We need to speak up because without our voices, without even an inch of movement, there is no understanding. And without understanding, there can be no empathy. Let’s speak up so that we can one day live in a world where people — both male and female — don’t feel ashamed for how they feel. Where people willingly speak up and seek help.
Don’t be afraid to speak up. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you feel something is wrong. If you see someone suffering, please don’t let them suffer in silence.
Always, always, always, be kind. Kindness is possible. Chose it.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
The title of this post comes from lyrics of the song ‘I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me‘ by Demi Lovato.