I wonder what the world would be like if we could talk about mental illness the same way we talk about physical illness. Not that I’m convinced that these are neatly separated categories, but it is a useful basic distinction.
Imagine if you could walk into a party and say, “don’t hug me, I’ve been suffering from traumatic flashbacks all day & I can’t take being that close to another person right now.” Like you would if you had a cold — you’d say “don’t hug me, I have a cold & don’t want to pass it along.”
If you say you have a cold, the other person might mostly ignore it & move on, saying that they hope you feel better. Or they might be moved to offer some sort of sympathy or help — “oh no, that sucks — let me give you some tissues & soup and a get well soon card.”
But what would they say if you tell them you are sorry for missing their party, but you couldn’t leave the house because the panic attack was too intense? What would they say the tenth time you tell them that?
The lack of ability to talk about mental illness is an extremely isolating phenomenon. Mental illness is just as prevalent as physical illness, but we have to hide it. We have to make excuses for missing events & reacting to things in less-typical ways because to tell the truth is considered shameful. We are not supposed to reveal that our parents tortured us, or that we’re not over the horrors we saw in war, or that our genes are messed up & we can’t be happy. We are not supposed to be vulnerable to abuse, or admit that it happened, or that it had an effect on us.
I don’t believe people are bad. I have an almost endless supply of faith in the potential redemption of every person. I am almost always willing to believe that someone does not mean to do harm. And yet I don’t see the kind of compassion in the world that I think we need to have for other people. Mental illness does not always manifest as a diagnosis in the DSM. Sometimes it’s temporary or situational — something terrible happens that overwhelms our sense of self & our capacity to relate to others. That seems like something we should be able to see & recognize in other people, not something we should punish & sweep under the rug. Even when these situations arise out of events that are societally acceptable, such as losing a spouse or other close person, we still struggle with extending compassion & understanding. We don’t even have a system for letting people know that we’re grieving a loved one, and once we’ve named our grief, others feel awkward & don’t know how to respond.
I wish we could talk about mental illness as easily as we talk about physical illness. I wish that there were better ways to incorporate the reality of mental illness into our public lives, instead of hiding it away because we are supposed to feel ashamed.