May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I know - it seems like there is a month or a day dedicated to almost everything now, but I really am glad that there's a month dedicated to this. As woke as many of us are in 2018, there's still a huge stigma surrounding mental illness. I believe this is mostly due to a lack of understanding. I am lucky that I am predominately surrounded by people who are supportive, loving, and helpful to me in dealing with my depression and anxiety. However, in the last year and a half of having severe mental health problems, I have faced some people and situations that make it very clear that there is still so much ignorance about this topic. I certainly don't claim to know everything about how to deal with mental illness. I can, however, use my experiences to try and educate people.
As with anything that we don't personally experience, mental illness can be difficult to fathom if it isn't happening to you. It's not always easy to know what to say or how to treat someone. I guess I can't speak for everyone with a mental illness, but here are some things that really bother me.
1. PLEASE DON'T ASSUME WE ARE DANGEROUS
Especially with hyper-stigmatized mental illnesses like Schozophrenia, people have a tendency to become afraid upon finding out that someone they know has a mental illness. While it is entirely true that people who bomb buildings and shoot up post offices are sometimes mentally ill, most mentally ill people DO NOT spend their time planning mass murder. I, and many others, have faced hurtful assumptions at school, work, and church. I have never threatened to hurt anyone, and while I have often thought of hurting myself, I have never brought a weapon of any kind to a public place or threatened to hurt myself or others. The insinuation that someone feared that kind of behavior from me was very painful, and it made me feel even crazier than I actually am. If someone you know appears to be a danger to others, please do something about that - but don't ostracize your totally normal coworker who sometimes cries in the bathroom. She will not bite.
2. PLEASE DON'T APPROPRIATE OUR LANGUAGE TO BE FUNNY OR DRAMATIC
Raise your hand if you've ever heard something like this:
If the ice cream machine at McDonald's is broken again I will just slit my wrists.
That exam was so hard I literally wanted to kill myself.
I just can't have clutter on my desk. I'm, like, super OCD.
STOP SAYING THESE THINGS. Self-harm and suicidal thoughts are very legitimate problems, and people throwing that language around like confetti desensitizes everyone to hearing those words. Hearing, "I want to kill myself" should have an impact on the listener and result in immediate assistance. If the listener thinks it is a joke or an over-dramatization, that is less likely to happen. Every time you use language about shooting yourself in the face because you spilled your coffee, you minimize the legitimacy of the issue by making it commonplace and funny. Often during my darkest times I felt like people thought I was kidding or exaggerating when I said I felt like harming myself, like it was some sort of morbid figure of speech.
Also, apparently saying "trigger" or "trigger warning" is a thing now? Stop this. It is not cute. Triggers are entirely real for people with depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and other illnesses. There are places, people, smells, sounds, and phrases that can quickly result in a panic attack if I'm not careful. For people with PTSD, triggers can actually be life threatening. When I hear people talk like this, it sounds like they are making fun of not only the concept of being triggered, but also the people who react to triggers. Trust me, if we could stop being triggered we would. I don't enjoy feeling like I'm going to throw up when I see a certain type of car.
I don't even have OCD, but this one really bothers me. OCD is so deeply misunderstood that some people legitimately believe that if they like to-do lists, vacuum every day, and hate having sticky hands that they have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. YOU DO NOT. True OCD can render people completely unable to hold jobs or leave their homes. People with OCD don't just wash their hands a lot - that's a stereotype. It can manifest itself in so many other ways, and sometimes it has nothing to do with cleanliness. I have a friend whose OCD manifests itself as the compulsive and intrusive thought that she has run over a person with her car and killed them, which makes it really difficult to drive places. Please stop using OCD as a description of yourself or others who don't like clutter.
3. PLEASE STOP PILL SHAMING
Pill shaming comes in many forms. Some people believe that taking medicine for mental health issues is for snowflakes who just don't want to have to work on their problems or don't realize that life is hard and everyone else has to deal with it too. Some people think it's fine that you take medicine, but say things like "I would just never do that. I try to handle my depression on my own." Uh, yeah, so did the people who ended up on medicine. They tried - it just didn't work. Some people make what they think are encouraging statements about how someday I won't need medicine or therapy. This is entirely possible; however, I don't like the implication that if I never reach that stage, it means I didn't try hard enough or that where I am now is only going to be tolerated by them for a certain period of time. All of this is pill shaming.
What should you do instead? Just encourage people to get healthy - whatever that means for them. Some people manage to get healthy without medicine - encourage them to keep doing what they're doing. Some people try for months or years to feel better without medicine and simply can't - encourage them to get the help they need and stop being stubborn or scared. Some people can just tell that they need back up to help with what's happening to them - encourage them to do what's right for them. What's right for you might look completely different, and that's ok too.
4. PLEASE STOP MAKING IT A FAITH ISSUE
Several months ago I was sitting in a coffee shop where a group of men were gathered for a men's leadership Bible study associated with a local church. Before they got started, one of them said that they needed to discuss "the depression problem". He went on to explain that what he viewed as "the depression problem" was women consistently claiming to be afflicted with depression because it garnered attention. His exact words at the end of his statement were, "I'm surprised every woman we know hasn't come forward claiming to have depression, seeing how much attention it gets them."
Incorrect and misogynistic.
I prayed for wisdom, and then I went over and interrupted their Bible study. I explained that I'd overheard them and wanted to talk to them. I admitted that I didn't know the women they were referring to, and that it's entirely possible that these women are making false claims for attention, but that they should be very careful making that assumption. For people of faith, often the first resource they utilize when dealing with mental health problems is the leaders of their respective faith communities. In this way preachers, elders, and youth ministers have a lot of power to influence the people they shepherd who have these problems, and must be wise and discerning in the way they handle such situations. If handled incorrectly, horrible things can happen. I know that personally. I simply asked that they use caution when making such pronouncements and tried to walk away.
The man I'd overheard speaking began to hound me. When did you discover you were depressed? When I was 17. Were you saved when that happened to you? Yes. How do you know you were saved when that happened to you? I had been baptized. How long ago had you been baptized? About ten years. How were you saved and yet thought your life was meaningless? I don't know. It happened in spite of my faith. Why did you think you had the right to harm what God had created, if you were a person of faith? I didn't think I had the right. Why did you think medicine was the only answer? I would never claim it's the only answer. In the end it was the right answer for me at the time. What do you think people did about depression before society propagated the idea that it should be healed with medicine? They... probably died... When did you stop believing in God? What? No, I never have! Then how did this happen to you?
Then how did this happen to me?
I think the people who know me well know that I have a deep and active faith. Throughout even my most major depressive episodes, I've never lost my faith. I've sometimes wondered what God was up to, but never thought him absent or non-existent. In fact, my faith has been strengthened and deeply rooted because of those major depressive episodes, not in spite of them. I think my faith is what it is now because it has been refined by fire and thoroughly tested.
Anxiety and depression didn't happen to me because I didn't have enough faith in God. In fact, perhaps God allowed these things to plague me because my faith could withstand it where another person's could not. I honestly don't know - it's tough to understand how God works sometimes.
It is true that scripture encourages us not to worry and to be full of joy, even in times of trial. To a point, there is something to be said for managing mental illness with faith, prayer, and a community of believers - I don't mean to discredit that possibility at all. However, as people of faith - and especially leaders of faith - we must be responsible with what we tell people who are struggling with mental illness. We should absolutely encourage people to seek God, to trust God, and to find joy in God. We also should acknowledge that for some people they have biology, or trauma, or deep rooted cognitive patterns working against them that must be dealt with further. These people should not be shamed. They are not shamed by their God, and therefore should never be shamed by his people.
I would be very interested to hear feedback about this post. If you struggle with mental illness, do you have something else that you wish the people around you knew? If you know someone with mental illness, is there something you've learned along the way that you wish you'd known sooner?