I don’t personally struggle with mental illness. In fact, I didn’t really have a clear understanding of what mental illness could encompass until I married my husband 19 years ago. My kind, gentle, lovely spouse has battled anxiety for most of his life. Not occasional bouts of nervousness or anxious feelings, which is what I always thought “anxiety” meant, but an actual disorder where his mind panics without provocation.
And I am now the mother of a teen who also struggles with anxiety as well as a specific, clinical phobia. I had no idea what a real phobia entailed and how life-affecting it can be. I had no idea how much work goes into basic functioning for people who are dealing with an anxiety disorder. It’s not that they can’t function — it’s just that it takes far more effort and energy than for those of us who walk through the world without our brains constantly messing with us.
Those of us without mental illnesses frequently misunderstand those who have them. It’s easy to think that if they’d just do the things that we do when we feel nervous, afraid, sad, or down then they can “kick it.” It’s easy to think that parenting or upbringing or a traumatic experience is to blame. (To be fair, sometimes it might be, but that’s definitely not a brush you can use to paint all people with mental illnesses.) It’s easy to think that people are choosing to wallow or using their illness as an excuse to avoid difficult situations.
What those of us without those struggles need to understand is that people don’t choose anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, or any other mental illness, just as people don’t choose to get juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, or other physical illnesses. Yet there is far more compassion and far less stigma with the latter. Why do we find it easier to sympathize with and withhold judgment from people with physical illnesses than we do people with mental illnesses?
Part of the answer has to do with the nature of mental disorders. They appear to be merely extreme versions of things we all deal with all the time. Everyone has felt anxious or afraid. Most people have experienced deep sadness or even numbness at times. All of us have dealt with scattered thoughts or restlessness on occasion.
So, ironically, part of the reason people have a hard time relating to mental illness is that we think we can relate. Because we think we’ve experienced something similar before, we think we understand. Until I saw what clinical anxiety looked like up close, day in and day out, and talked through what happens inside my loved ones’ minds when they’re in the middle of an episode, I thought I could say I’d experienced anxiety. But a bout of nervousness and an anxiety disorder are not the same thing — not even close.
Another reason we have a hard time understanding mental illness is that it’s usually invisible. The vast majority of people would never know that my husband and daughter struggle like they do. Most of their work is internal, and only those close to them for long periods of time ever see what they go through. To outside observers, they might appear quiet or shy sometimes, or they might just seem to have some unique quirks. People don’t know what’s happening under the surface.
My daughter’s emetophobia (fear of vomiting) seems like a normal aversion that most everyone has until you see her ask for the 10th time if the mayonnaise we just bought smells okay, or until you see her unable to make herself go to karate class because the “What if someone has the stomach flu and doesn’t know it yet?” fear overtook her. To most people, she appears to be a sweet, quiet, intelligent teenage girl (which she is); only her family and very close friends see these daily manifestations of her illness.
Those of us who love people with challenging brain activity understand how much they struggle and how hard it is when people don’t see it.
We know that treatment is often a trial-and-error endeavor and is more about management than cure. We know that you have to tackle it from multiple angles and be patient through processes that often feel like two steps forward, one step back.
We know that medication can be a good option, but isn’t always.
We know that anyone who claims to have an easy answer or miracle cure is either lying or doesn’t understand the illness.
We know that people with mental illnesses aren’t weak; in fact, they’re arguably a lot stronger than the rest of us.
Those of us without mental illness need to understand that there’s so much we don’t understand and can’t understand. And because of that, we need to practice a lot more empathy and a lot less snap judgment. Considering the fact that nearly 1 in 5 people deals with a mental illness each year, we can say with certainty that we all know people struggling in ways we can’t see. Ending the stigma around mental illness will go a long way toward helping those friends and family members feel safe and supported as they wage their silent battles.