Having a mental illness is no picnic. On top of managing the illness itself, you may be battling societal misconceptions, family worry and your own self-blame and concern — which is the least fun cocktail since the prairie oyster. In the face of the various challenges afoot, it can be difficult to keep a balanced perspective on what’s happening to you — particularly if you’re scared, don’t know a lot about the situation, or are feeling pressure from those around you. That’s where this guide comes in; it’s meant to jog your memory about the truths of mental illness and those who have it.
Approaches to your situation don’t have to be dour or serious: the Huffington Post is currently beginning a campaign called The Best Medicine, about the use of humor and comedy to combat and alleviate mental health issues. But if you need a hand up and some new viewpoints, I’ve compiled a look at some of the most vital bits of mental health experience, from historical context to the mentally ill community worldwide. There are rather a lot of us; regrettably, we don’t hold club nights or go on fun runs, but there are some fundamentals we should all keep in mind.
Here are five things that all mentally ill people should try to remember; but don’t beat yourself up if you forget sometimes. If it weren’t hard to remember them, there’d be no need for reminders.
1. You’re Not Alone
Without access to proper statistics or support networks, having a mental illness can be an excruciatingly isolating business, with shame, guilt and a deep sense of “weirdness” pervading the issue. However, the overwhelming bulk of data on mental illness indicates that across the full spectrum of population and diagnosis, it’s very common; there is no reason for you to feel as if you’re a unique case, even if nobody in your personal sphere has experience with mental difficulties.
The most common mental illness in Britain, for example, is a combination of anxiety and depression, according to the Mental Health Foundation, with four percent of the population meeting diagnostic criteria at any one time and a whopping 10 percent of the population becoming depressed at least once in their lifetime. Mental health is estimated to be one of the biggest reasons for health spending worldwide, with money going to everything from treatment of sufferers to medical research. The Counseling Directory points out that a gigantic 615 million people worldwide currently have a mental health issue, and a quarter of the world’s population will have a mental issue of some kind in their life.
Just looking at the US? The National Mental Health Institute makes a conservative estimate that in 2014 alone, 18.1 percent of the adult population had some kind of mental illness, from the mild to the severe. That’s 43.6 million people, and that number doesn’t include children, soldiers on active duty, the homeless, or people in mental institutions; so the number is likely significantly higher. You’re the opposite of alone: you’re part of a gigantic community, one that needs the freedom to be more vocal and less silenced by shame and misconceptions.
2. You’re Not In The First Generation To Grapple With These Problems
This is one of the most frustrating pieces of rhetoric around mental illness: that it was somehow “invented” by the modern era. There are definite, and often very solid, arguments about the contributions of certain parts of modern life to mental illness development; an article in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2012, for example, argued that the modern tendency to be “overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, and socially-isolated” all contribute to a higher likelihood of developing depression. However, it’s important not to throw all your blame at contemporary trends. Mental illnesses of various forms have been a feature of human history for centuries, but the language with which we discuss them has shifted significantly.
Melancholia, for instance, was a category of description for various symptoms of depression, malaise and anger. It was used for several thousands of years; it was originally thought by the Greeks to exist due to an over-abundance of black bile in the body (the physician Hippocrates famously found the melancholic Democritus in his garden cutting up animal bodies to see how the bile could be stemmed). Robert Burton famously published his Anatomy of Melancholy in 1638, in which he argued that melancholy was the essence of the human condition. From that point, we’ve moved towards a more physical understanding of depression, including its possible roots in a serotonin uptake problem in the brain; but that’s just a new understanding of a very old problem.
And when it comes to anxiety, we’ve been discussing the possible evolutionary origins of the fight-or-flight impulse (and how it can go wrong)since the 19th century. But the New York Times points out that anxietas is an ancient word derived from “unease… within a framework of sin, redemption and eternal judgment,” and medieval and Renaissance ideas about “hysteria” in women may have fed into general ideas about the biological basis for anxieties in general. And schizophrenia is a relatively new classification for a collection of mental symptoms, which, as Scientific American noted, have appeared in various societies in history as attributable to demonic possession, “dirtiness”, holy visions and other supernatural roots. Whatever your particular illness, it didn’t come from out of nowhere; it’s part of human mental history.
3. You’re Not Weak
There’s a very strong view in psychological and medical circles that mental illness is a physical problem: that it is created by, and demonstrated through, distinct signs and symptoms in the body, specifically in the brain. Creating a “map” of each illness’s potential physical shape is becoming more possible thanks to what the American Psychological Assocation calls “the new toolkit”: rapid advances in neural imaging and understanding of neural circuitry. The APA’s perspective is that the majority of serious mental illnesses may be traced back to brain dysfunction, but that these dysfunctions may be triggered by “important environmental, behavioral and social factors;” in other words, you’re not just your brain, but your brain is exceedingly important in understanding the development of your mental illness.
What does this mean? It basically means that you are not a “failure” or “weak-willed” for developing a mental illness. We’re making huge strides in our understanding of the biological basis for various mental disorders; a 2013 breakthrough in Cardiff, for instance, linked a certain collection of genes to the potential for mental health worries. You can’t help your biology; and, frankly, you also often can’t help a dangerous or threatening context that might encourage mental dysfunction to flourish. There shouldn’t be blame in your experience of your difficulties.
4. You Haven’t Brought This On Yourself
See above. But this is another prong of “blame” when it comes to mental illness: the idea that if you’d made other choices, done better things, taken one route instead of another, you wouldn’t be in your current situation. One: the biological determinants of mental illness may mean that you’d be ill no matter what happened in your life or what choices you’d made. Two: many of the contextual factors that seem to contribute to, or exacerbate, the development of mental health symptoms are not easily escaped. The World Health Organization labels poverty as “one of the strongest predictors of mental disorders”; academics also note that stressful or violent environments are high on the list. Stress during childhood (or even while in the womb), low socioeconomic status, poor parental mental health, jobs with low control and reward, levels of debt and chronic ill health all contribute to mental health issues, too.
The thing you should notice about all those factors? They are, regrettably, often out of your own hands when it comes to your risk level. It is not helpful to blame yourself for your own condition; it’s more productive to attempt to get help.
5. You Are Still Worthy Of Love
According to a groundbreaking 2013 survey, public perceptions of mental illness are changing, but there’s still a ways to go in reaching wider understanding, sympathy and acceptance — and that’s a problem. It can be critically difficult for people with mental illnesses to maintain a sense of their own worth in the face of societal criticism, particularly if the illness itself is highly self-critical, like depression. But hanging on to this perception, even in a slender form, is deeply important.
Self-esteem in general has been argued to be a productive strategy for helping ordinary mental health, but developing it in the mentally ill is another kettle of fish. The practice of self-compassion, self-forgiveness and self-acceptance is difficult but important to everybody with a mental illness; you’re worthwhile, you’re loveable, you’re valuable and people want you around. If you don’t feel you have any worth and are currently in therapeutic treatment, please mention this to your therapist; if you’re not in treatment, talk to somebody in your friendship group or family, or call a helpline like one of those on the list provided by Psych Central.