There are a lot of crazy misconceptions about depression. About anxiety. About chemical dependency. About bipolar disorder. About mental health in general. People think these conditions are choices, that could be fixed if that person just did…..whatever great idea they come up with at the moment. No, it’s not something that can typically be “behaviored” into oblivion.
How did these misconceptions come about? Here are my thoughts. There is a huge misunderstanding about mental health issues. Often people get the idea that people have these conditions because they are weak or lacking in some major way. We think they just need to snap out of it. It’s something they can control. That’s why people don’t talk about it openly. It’s a taboo that families have hidden and felt shame about for generations.
I started to type “we don’t typically assign blame for other illnesses, do we?” Then I answered my own question and realized that often people do. When someone is sick there are certain types of people who look at their lifestyle and look to assign assign blame. Did they smoke? Did they eat fried foods or too much sugar? Did they wear their sunscreen? Were they promiscuous? Did they drink? Were they working too much? Yep….people assign blame. It’s fruitless….and often their “diagnosis” is wrong. I have a huge heart for making sure that people understand the risk factors for different sicknesses and diseases and what to expect when they get treatment. That’s why everyone usually knows when I get my colonoscopy. I believe we have to de-mystify things. We need to make healthcare normal and less scary and something we can talk about. We need to quit feeling embarrassed about our bodies and talk about changes in them with doctors and other trusted people. Not doing so is killing people.
Our behaviors usually impact our overall health, but all bodies are not the same and don’t react the same to outer or inner stimuli. One size ones not fit all. The human body is a miraculous and curious thing.
Mental health conditions bring out a whole slew of armchair psychologists. If we agree the body is both miraculous and curious, I believe our brains are even more of a mystery. I like using the terms “brain chemistry” when talking about mental health conditions. I understand things a bit better if I remember with mental heath issues the brain chemistry is out of balance. Sometimes this is inherited. Sometimes not. Outside factors can exacerbate it, but they don’t typically cause it.
You take a condition like alcoholism. I don’t have a propensity for it. I can’t remember my first drink, but it was truly uneventful. Almost a disappointment. I didn’t feel any different after drinking it. I did not get a buzz. I was as boring before as I was afterward. For a long time I wondered if people were faking their tipsiness after a drink or two. It didn’t happen to me.
I find the stories of my friends’ first drinks to be fascinating. Many are such a contrast to my own. Their first drink was like a whole new world opening up. They felt more relaxed, more confident, more able to engage in conversation….life was just better. Sometimes I did wish it would effect me that way. But then someone would trip over my feet as they were running to find somewhere to vomit, and yeah…it had little appeal.
The stories I’ve heard (and witnessed) from friends who are recovering alcoholics are even more interesting. In many cases, from that first glass, alcohol was their new best friend. It took them to nirvana. From the first drop. The things it did to their life seemed really, really good….they felt they became a better version of themselves. Life was easier to cope with. Until it wasn’t. Until alcohol controlled them instead of them controlling the alcohol. They realized it really did make them a new person….but one they didn’t like. One that was needy. One who got inappropriately angry or emotional or said things they didn’t necessarily mean (or mean to say out loud.) They began to need a drink to get through almost anything. Simple life stuff. Good times and bad times and times they were simply bored. Their body cried out for this substance even when they knew it made their life less.
Alcoholism is an easy illness to illustrate. But how about crippling anxiety? How about when your brain tells you everything in the world is scary and you need to stay home and protect yourself? It’s easy to say “You just need to conquer this. You’re making it worse than it is.” Which may be true, but you don’t live in their brain. You can’t understand the paralyzing terror.
And depression. That fog of sad that permeates your whole body for no visible reason. How many times do people who suffer from this disease think the whole world is simply getting in their face and singing the Bobby McFerrin tune “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”? Once again…. these people who aren’t struggling with depression don’t experience the incredible sadness in their brain…so they have no idea of the inner battle the person is fighting. The weight they feel bearing down on their soul. They don’t feel the same as someone whose brain is in balance.
And bipolar disorder? It’s become a condition people assign to anyone whose behavior they don’t understand and it has become almost a joke. It’s not a joke to those who suffer through the intense roller coaster. They have to be ever vigilant to keep it from spinning their life out of control.
A few things I’ve observed about mental health conditions/chemical imbalances in the brain.
* They throw you off course. It can be impossible to maintain mental equilibrium.
* They lie to you. Oh, how they lie to you. They convince you that you’re inadequate.
* Not only do they lie to you, but they force you to lie to others. Even those you love. Especially those you love.
* They make you want to hide who you really are. Nobody talks about this stuff….it’s a secret.
* They isolate you. They keep you away from people and make you paranoid about their intentions towards you.
* When they don’t isolate you, they draw you towards people with the same problems, who want to drag you further down, or they drag you to those who enable you and keep you from both accepting the condition and getting help.
* They convince you that you don’t need help – that you can handle it on your own.
There are people I love with mental health and chemical dependency conditions. Some recognize it, treat it, and stay on a regime that allows them to control it. Others acknowledge it, but have a difficult time doing the things that they need to do to control it. Or they’re disinterested, no matter the symptoms and how they glaringly impact their life. They may acknowledge it’s an issue, but for some reason don’t care about doing what it takes to remain at equilibrium. And then there are those who are in denial. They won’t seek treatment, because they think nothing is wrong with them. Or they think they can handle it on their own. Or they don’t want anyone to know. Or they don’t know where to go for help. Or they think acknowledging it means they are weak. Or they think it is something of which they need to be ashamed. Or they are simply tired of talking about it and taking the medication that the doctor said they need.
Mental health conditions do not typically occur because people aren’t loved enough. They don’t typically occur because someone is weak. They don’t typically occur because someone was not taught how to behave. They don’t typically occur because someone is being dramatic.
Remember that these conditions are diseases. Sicknesses. The root of them is biological. As a heart patient needs to have a lifestyle that supports good heart health, so a mental health patient needs a lifestyle that supports good mental health.
The good news is that as with other diseases, good strides are being made. There are new drug therapies and treatments that help. We now understand more about how things like stress exacerbate the problem and how even something like diet and exercise can make a difference. It often requires tackling the disease on multiple levels. There are dedicated professionals out there that can help people get on a good path. And people are more often speaking out about these conditions unashamed….which will mean more help is on the way.
Those in the lives of people suffering mental health conditions are often not prepared to deal with it. Sometimes love comes off as nagging….and sometimes it really is. Often we run the gamut of enabling, trying “tough love”, or just being too tired and frustrated to deal with it anymore. It’s hard to know the right thing to do for each person. We run out of ideas and feel helpless.
As for the person who is suffering the issue, often they can’t grab on to the love. Sometimes that unbalanced brain chemistry has their equilibrium at a point that I can only describe as severe brain pain. They don’t see the world quite as it is. They don’t see much of anything because they are feeling the pain so intensely there is no room to feel or think about anything else.
Let’s get rid of stigmas and greatly increase the treatment options available to people. Let’s all learn more about mental health conditions and band together to help those who are sick. Let’s support the families and friend in our communities. Let’s help our schools as they attempt to tackle these issues on top of all of the other issues they have to deal with. Let’s be open about the issues and let’s be open about our stories. While you may feel that everyone around you notices the turmoil you are in, often they don’t. You have to tell them. Keep talking until you feel someone understands what you’re going through. Let people surround you and help.
It’s Suicide Prevention Months. Often people who kill themselves do so as a result of a mental health issue. We can’t turn our backs any longer. We need these people stable and functioning in our world.
For those of you who have contemplated suicide, there is help. Learn those things that help keep your illness at bay. Please reach out and we will help you find them. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day (1-800-273-8255), if you are not comfortable talking to those around you. Our world would not be the same without you. As someone who has loved people who have ended their lives, I know how the loss of those lives throws the world out of balance. Help us keep our equilibrium. It’s not you….the disease is lying to you. Stay.
Note – My niece has started a team for our local Out of the Darkness walk, in memory of my great nephew Kaelan, who we lost in 2016 at age 17. If you’d like to help sponsor our team, you can use this link. https://afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donordrive.participant&participantID=2153675
And as a reminder, I am not a mental health professional and these are simply my thoughts today. The opinions of others may not agree, based on their personal knowledge and experience.