Out of mind, out of sight

Why do people assume that a “broken” brain means a “broken” mind, heart and soul?

I can’t speak on behalf of the difficulties that people dealing with mental health issues experience, but I can give my perspective as an observer. Mental health, like Black History Month, is a conversation that doesn’t end with its delegated time. This will hopefully be the first of many posts and discussions to ensue from this topic.

Why is mental health so stigmatized? I don’t mean poor mental health or good mental health, just mental health in general. People are afraid to suggest the topic, it’s like the brussels sprouts of conversations. If you have a problem with your heart, leg, lungs or stomach, you can go and see a doctor with little fear of being judged or looked down upon. Why does that change when we shift to the brain? Why do people assume that a “broken” brain means a “broken” mind, heart and soul? You’d think that something so central and vital to the human body, something so intricate and sensitive, would be approached with openness and impartiality.

Mental health, like one’s sex, colour or sexual orientation is not something rooted in choice. No one wakes up one morning and thinks ” you know what, today feels like a good day to start my depression” or “bipolar disorders are trendy, I’ll try that!” These aren’t garments or fashion pieces picked out of a wardrobe. They are garments one is forced to wear, that societal voices make only more suffocating.

Take sex. Sex deals with the physical difference between men and women. We’ve heard this before (sorry if I’m the first person to tell you this): women have vaginas, men have penises, men tend to be taller than women, women tend to bear babies. Then what society does is distort these differences, taking the physical and moving it into the societal, stereotypical, gendered and political. You have sex and then you have distortions of sex in gender, which is similar to mental health, only the distortions are amplified.

Millions of people are affected by mental health issues. With increased joblessness, stress, engineered hormones, media exploitation and other factors, the “issue” of mental health isn’t going anywhere. There are misconceptions about mental health out there, and I’ll admit, I’m in the process of re-educating myself. I wouldn’t want to be judged by my skin or sex, so it’s only fair that I take that approach with others.

Are you a feminist, sexual rights activist or humanitarian? Do you believe people are more than their skin, hair, sexual partner, situation, upbringing or religion? If you nod yes to any of these, then by default you should also be a mental health activist.

16 thoughts on “Out of mind, out of sight

  1. Thanks for doing this great article on this important issue. I work for a behavioral and mental health agency working with children, youth and families. So this is an issue close to my heart. We hope that the stigma around mental health can be diminished as activism around HIV/AIDS was through diligent activism in the ’80s and ’90s. It is encouraging that in the U.S. this topic is being included in the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare). This group is doing good work to reduce the stigma: http://www.bringchange2mind.org/

  2. Thanks for doing the work that you do. It’s people like you, coupled with persistent activism, that will end the stigmas surrounding mental health.

    I just visited the website that you linked and I;m about to pledge my support.

  3. People are afraid of mental illness. They are afraid they’ll catch it. They are afraid of people who are mentally ill. And, I truly believe, out of fear of the unknown combined with honest bewilderment, they stigmatize those who are mentally ill because the “normals” cannot understand “them” (us).

    I suffered a major depression 20 years ago. Since I survived, I can say I wouldn’t have missed the experience. But I lost most of my friends and as a result of that, I am careful whom I befriend now.

    My slide down was fairly public, at first, since I was unaware anything was happening to me. Once I was diagnosed, and took time off from work, it was very difficult to get help because I had no insurance. My disability payments didn’t start until long after I’d begun selling CD’s, household possessions and clothing for spending money (groceries, gas). So, on top of a major depressive crisis I was inches from losing my house and living on the street. It was almost as if the “world” were saying “You deserve this for not being able to keep your shit together.”

    During that summer I spent a lot of time at a coffee house in one of San Diego’s interesting neighborhoods. One afternoon a homeless man with a border collie came by and put $2.00 on my table and said, “Buy a cup of coffee. I’ve wanted to give you that for a long time.” I saw a different world, but also the same world in a different way.

    When I returned to work, because it’s illegal to lay off someone or fire them for having a depressive crisis, my boss cut my classes down to a level so low I did not have enough money from my job to live on. Having fought my way back to sanity, I found myself fighting my way back to solvency. I had to make a new life.

    The biggest obstacles to compassion are selfishness, fear and lack of imagination. My grandfather used to say two things I learned from my mom. “There but for the grace of God go I” and “I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.”

    • I don’t understand how someone can think that they can catch a mental illness, especially when there are so many outlets that discuss mental health conditions.

      People fear what they don’t understand, like homosexuality, as if these things were bugs.

      I’m so happy that you came out of that situation and are healthy and active today, but what you went through is bullshit (pardon my anger). There should be more aid available for people dealing with mental health issues. So many people are suffering in silence out of fear of being socially ostracized, losing their job or being abandoned by friends.

      It’s illegal to lay off someone dealing with a depressive crisis but it’s okay to cut their pay so that they can barely take care of themselves. That’s backwards.

      • Yeah, it was a lesson. But I also discovered how fierce I am and that was a very good thing to learn. I have a little mental image of myself as a medieval knight, holding a broadsword, swinging it fearlessly and saying, “No fucking way are you messing up MY life.” 🙂

  4. I agree with Martha. It’s strange but there are people out there who do believe that if they spend time with someone who has a mental illness, they’ll catch it. They think it’s like the flu – it’s contagious and will eventually go away. I’ve had so many people say things like “oh, you’re STILL taking medication”. Um, yes, yes I am, and I’m not going to stop anytime soon.

    And yes, it’s partly because not many people are educated in mental illnesses. In Psychology class, the professor simply told us what the symptoms were for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, etc. Of course he meant no harm but there was a large handful of people who immediately associated having any of the mental illnesses as “being insane” and started making fun of the situation.

    You’re right. I don’t understand why it’s such a taboo to bring it up. But like you said, it’s one of those things that people still aren’t too comfortable talking about.

    • It’s infuriating because no one chooses to be mentally ill. It’s okay to have heart conditions, and other physical ailments, you won’t lose friends and family for that. But as soon as it’s something that touches your brain it’s as if you’re not the same person anymore.

      I don’t accept that people aren’t educated. Ignorance isn’t an excuse for stupidity. You should be able to see the worth of any human being, especially if their state is not a reflection of their will.

      People everywhere would be infuriated, and rightly so, if a person claimed they didn’t want to associate with people of colour because they feared “catching blackness.” That anger should be as prevalent with mental health, I guess time and advocacy will give us that perspective.

  5. One book I found really comforting and illuminating back thn was Kay Redfield Jamison’s book Touched with Fire. Years later I read her book about her own experiences (she is a psychiatrist who also endure bipolar mood “disorder”) An Unquiet Mind. We might be “mad” but we are in astonishing company.

    • I have to pick that up. I can’t imagine what it must have been like as a psychiatrist to experience bipolar mood disorders. There’s so much conflict there: was she more trained to handle her mood swings, was her training a hindrance, how did her colleagues view her?

      I have so much stuff to read for school, but like Wilde said I shouldn’t let my schooling get in the way of my education.

  6. People judge without meaning without intent every day of their lives – I can live with that since I do it too. Every time you form an opinion it’s making a judgement. However when people judge based solely on the idea of “difference” that’s when I tend to get a little ticked. As someone with a mental health history prompted by life events and as someone married to a person that has a biological mental health condition I tend to go from ticked to riled when someone judges in regards to mental health. I really liked your post and for someone who does have lived experience you show excellent insight and more importantly have grasped the concept that judgement based on ‘difference’ is not the way to approach sensitive issues. Thank you for your words and I look forward to your future posts on other issues or ideas as they occur to you.

    • Many thanks. I think that I’ve just come to the point in my life where I’ve realized that although everyone is allowed to hold opinions, not everyone is entitled to them. If you believe that someone living with mental illness is less than human, I refuse to view that opinion as valid.

      Thanks for the encouragement. When I started this blog I thought I’d just be covering the usual arts, but it’s morphed into something else. If I can help someone or bring awareness to issues in society then I will.

    • Thank you Lita. You always have something encouraging to say.
      I hope you have a great weekend as well. Unfortunately it’s back to school after a well needed reading week.

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