Break the Stigma about Mental Health
Imagine that you have a job as a house painter. You and your coworkers climb ladders every day. Every time you climb a ladder there is a chance of falling, and the more often you climb the ladder the higher the chances are that one day you will have a fall. Your coworker, Jennifer, falls but escapes unscathed. Another day another coworker, Alex, falls; he sprains his ankle and breaks his arm. He will suffer for a time but will heal and return to work. Another day, on a different job site, Carl falls and suffers a neck injury, and his life is forever changed.
When you stand back and look at your coworkers and their falls, there is no clear reason why Carl’s fall was worse than Jennifer’s. Certainly, when we talk as we get our rollers and brushes ready in the morning, we don’t say, “Carl was just weak, that’s why he won’t walk again.” Nor do we think that Alex just wants some time off of work, so he pretended to hurt his ankle and is probably wearing a fake cast. Instead, we take up a collection to help Carl’s family install a ramp so he can get in and out of his home more easily. Maybe we offer to help Alex mow his yard for a while, since he can’t do it until he gets his cast off.
When someone has difficulty with their physical health, we respond with care and compassion. Shouldn’t it be the same when someone struggles with their mental health? I suspect the difference is that with a physical injury we can see what happened. We see the results, and we know that the person who fell is blameless. With mental illness, it is almost always harder to know what happened to create this difficulty, and there are a lot of different reasons someone might develop a mental illness.
One possibility is a genetic component. Scientists are working to find the genes that make one person more susceptible to mental health challenges than another. Perhaps the genes dictate the way chemicals or the structures of our brains work. Amazingly, we have learned that the expression of our genes is influenced by things in our lives. Maybe Alex had similar genes, ones that affect how his body processes calcium, so his arm was more likely to break. We still have compassion for Alex. What if, instead, we have a friend, John, who has been mistreated throughout his life. He has a gene that makes him more susceptible to depression. Can we have the same compassion for his suffering? Can we understand that for him it takes a lot more effort to do some of the things we may find relatively effortless?
Another possibility is that even falls that look the same can be different. Carl, Alex, and Jennifer all fell from the same height. The accident reports all look about the same. It had rained the night before Jennifer’s fall, though, so the ground was soft and spongy. Alex fell on harder ground, and there was a rock under Carl’s ladder. With mental health problems, we sometimes hear that something happened to somebody and that contributed to their struggles, and we think, “I’ve been through worse than that and I’m okay.” But we can’t take into account hidden factors and details we don’t know. With a physical injury, people aren’t likely to think much about why things are worse for Carl and Alex than they were for Jennifer. We chalk it up to luck and do our best to care for Carl and Alex. How do we respond to Martha, who developed PTSD after being in a wreck? She is overwhelmed with fear and struggles to leave her home or engage in many social or work activities. Can we care for her as easily as we can care for Carl and Alex?
Yet another thing to consider is the support available to a person. In a different scenario, someone else saw Jennifer’s ladder about to fall. They grabbed it, which slowed her fall, and allowed her to get her bearings so she landed on her feet. Carl and Alex weren’t as fortunate. Do we blame them for that? Do we get angry at them because no one saw they needed help in time? Of course not; they are blameless. In the same way, when Martin starts acting strangely, calling 911 for reasons that no one understands, and talking to people that no one else can see, can we get angry? No one noticed that Martin had started isolating himself, staying away from everybody, and hiding in his room. No one noticed until he became a “problem.”
In all mental health struggle scenarios, just as for Alex and Carl, there is help available. Too often, people fear that no one will understand. Too often, people avoid seeking help because they believe needing help means they are weak or flawed. We as a community and as individuals have to look within ourselves and ask if there is any good reason why Martin, Martha, and John should be looked upon with any more scorn than Carl, Alex, or Jennifer? Ultimately, we will all have struggles in our lives—physical, mental, or both. When those times come, we all deserve to be looked upon with compassion and to receive the treatment that will help us to live the fullest possible lives.
L. Jeff Davis, LPC
514 West Bankhead Hwy Suite 100
Villa Rica, GA. 30180