Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Let's Talk...about Mental Health

There's a campaign afoot to get people talking more often and openly about mental health, and today has been designated "Let's Talk" day. So I think I'll write about it.

I don't think of myself as mentally ill, but then again I don't think of myself as physically ill, either. But just as I've experienced physical illness throughout my life, it's probably fair to say I've suffered from mental illness all my life as well, though I cringe a bit at expressing it that way. 

Which, to me, highlights a big chunk of what we're dealing with. As a culture, we're still stuck in treating maladies of the mind in broad, imprecise generalities that confuse or obscure realities. We lump various conditions together, overlooking important distinctions, with the result that simple and appropriate solutions are overlooked.

And my openning points to one of the main - and very problematic - generalities. We think of physical illness as something that comes and goes. But mental illness it's treated like a once and forever thing. You can catch a bad flu, get over it, and that's that. But have a serious bout of depression and it's liable to follow you forever. Have a moody day and folks around you will be ready to put you back on the medication. Of course depression can be recurring. And some people get the flu every year. But it ain't necessarily so.

Take another example. We recognize that a person who has trouble walking can be dealing with any one - or more than one - of a wide variety of very different conditions. The problem could be a broken bone, or an infection. A splint would aide in one of those conditions and a shot of penicillin in the other, but if you misapply them you achieve nothing. But the problem might also be a torn or sprained muscle or an inflamed joint; there could be an illness at work, or a back, spine or nerve problem in play. Or a person might be paralysed, over-worked, or under-nourished. Some of these conditions are indicative of disease, others are not; some may be on-going, and others are very temporary and non-recurring.

But when it comes to the mind, we're much more likely to simply think of someone as having a "mental health problem", and getting no more precise than that. We'll back away from the person afflicted, avoid all discussion with them about what's going on, then gossip with everyone else. But in reality, the problem could be chronic or passing, biological or incidental, serious or minor, hereditary or environmental, incapacitating or a survival skill.

Perhaps most damaging is that we tend to think of people suffering from a mental health problem as permanently damaged or defective, something we'd never think of someone with the a lung infection, a broken toe or chicken pox. Even cancer and AIDS have gradually shed the "mark of death" stigma, because survivors who suffer no apparent, on-going deficits have become common. But the scourge of mental illness remains.

In my own case, when I look at it and think about it, I become mentally ill much more regularly than I become physically ill. I have a strong constitution and my body just doesn't break down that often. But I come down with mental/emotional "colds" and "flus" pretty regularly. They aren't severe enough that I need hospitalization, but I might need a day off from work, or just to retreat from my social world for a bit. Or I might need to take some "over-the-counter medication", like some regular meditation, or walks, or talks with my closest friends. And just as on the physical side, a little preventative nutrition and exercise can go a long way.

This lack of awareness exists as much in my area of work - the social services - as elsewhere. In this community we're accustomed to dealing with clients with diagnosed mental illnesses. But we are also conditioned to ignore the milder forms of depression, anxiety or mental exhaustion that so many of us suffer from. I've worked at agencies where mental health days were treated as the same as physical health days. But that's a rarity, and there's little substantive support for the "care givers" who don't care for themselves, hense the rampant burnout in the field, of workers who are overwhelmed and stressed to the limit.

So, I'm grateful and appreciative of this small effort to draw more attention to mental health. No doubt it'll get better, if we'll only pay attention...and keep on talking about it!


  1. I concur Kirby. Well written.

  2. i also agree. i think that in this post capitalist consumer dream we live in, unhappiness, like death, is shunned as something not belonging to life, but unhappiness, like death, is very much an integral part of life. without death, there would be no life, without unhappiness, there wouldn't be happiness.