In defense of mental health

Dave Ferry

With the recent conversations surrounding mental illness in the news, it is not difficult to understand why the concept of defending it might offend some. After all, when the actions of a mentally unstable person hurt people, forgiveness can be a bridge too far.

But the stigmas surrounding people who have been diagnosed and have been, or are currently seeking treatment, seem like far too easy a scapegoat for people who may only just be more successfully masking their own personal struggles than everyone else.

Getting treatment for any disorder, whether it’s depression, anxiety, or PTSD, or worse, requires tremendous courage. I guarantee you if ANY diagnosed sufferers ended up turning to violence, it is not only their mental health issues that are to blame.

Take, for instance, someone struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD). There is enough information available in the form of statistics, personal experience and clever “brain on drugs” commercials that we’ve all seen that abusing drugs is a bad choice, but it’s their choice. And society says that no one needs to feel sorry for them.

But is it really a choice?

I feel like I’ve known enough people to safely conclude that everyone is addicted to something. Maybe it’s that “one” cigarette you have when you’re out with friends or a nose full of fresh, Warren County air. Whatever it may be that gets you out of bed in the morning and fires up the dopamine receptors in your brain; congratulations, you have everything you need to be considered “neurotypical”.

Each and every one of us has a unique chemical stew in our heads that composes our individual perceptions of reality. Although it seems we are all experiencing the same relative existence, there are billions upon billions experiencing it from different colored windows.

Billions of different interpretations like billions of different universes.

Imagine what it would be like if you woke up looking through a different window that wasn’t as pleasant as the one from the day before. You might feel like you would do anything to get that better view back. What’s worse is when everyone around you is telling you the view is just fine and you begin to doubt yourself.

It makes sense that it would be challenging to relate to someone whose experience doesn’t match up with yours. But there are plenty among us who regularly demonstrate that it’s possible to have great compassion for others. In my opinion, a lack of insight and empathy between groups could itself be considered a type of mental illness one day.

I’m often baffled by the way the average person talks about mental illness. Often in times of tragedy, suddenly everyone becomes an expert on the subject even though there are very few people who truly understand the complex inner workings of the human brain, let alone what might be considered mental-wellness. It’s all so subjective.

According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC) 1 in 5 Americans will experience mental illness such as depression in any given year. 1 in 25 Americans live daily with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.

It goes on to say more than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder within their lifetime.

What these numbers suggest to me is that there may be far more people suffering in silence who don’t even know it. If that is indeed the case, then pointing the finger at ALL of the mental illness accomplishes nothing more than putting a scarlet letter on those who have taken steps to get healthy. Those who haven’t yet been able to speak up are more likely not to ever for fear of being branded.

Villainizing one person who is out of control is not going to help the millions of people who are one bad day away from heading down a dark path or something much much worse. I am willing to bet if anyone struggling could have found a way to say something to someone they trust the day before that “one bad day,” they would have.

But not everyone has someone they can trust to turn to in a time of crisis. If we were willing to consider the possibility that people who are self-aware and seek help are often the most courageous among us, maybe it would encourage more people to open up in a healthy way.

Next time you see someone struggling with something you don’t understand, don’t judge them. It’s may just be that they envy you, that they would give anything to be able to conjure up their own happiness. You can’t teach them. You can’t show them how. You can’t tell them to get over it.

But you can respect that deep down, everyone just wants to feel normal.