Embracing realities of mental health

Published 9:41 pm Friday, March 18, 2011

For as advanced as this society likes to consider itself, it is largely still stuck in the dark ages on the topic of mental health.

Over the last few decades we have encountered the free love movement, the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement and the homosexual rights push.

There are so many thought processes and philosophies that were once commonplace that are now considered archaic. The very presence of them is often at the least chastisable and sometimes worthy of a lawsuit. So they have been expelled from our daily lives.

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And, somehow, we cannot fully embrace the notion of mental illness. Maybe that is because we are still largely terrified of the concept. After all, even mental health experts cannot accurately and definitively pinpoint how much of mental illness is a product of one’s environment and how much can be attributed to a genetic predisposition.

Moreover, mental illness is like nearly every other disease out there. Indiscriminate. It knows no age, gender, ethnic or social limitation.

That scares most of us. Not to diminish cancer, heart disease or any other ailment, but we as a society are better prepared to deal with those things for two reasons. First, because our awareness of them is heightened due to the fact that we have not ignored them as a people. Second, because those things attack our quality of life but not our mind. Through it all, we are still who we are. Our personalities are still distinct.

Mental illness does not often show such kindness. It attacks the very core of what makes us who we are. It can make us depressed. It can turn us against the people who love us. It can cause us to act as a child. It can strip us of our dignity at any time. And those prospects are terrifying to anyone who values anything about their life.

I spent nearly two years working in a state run psychiatric facility. I have seen mental illness afflict the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the pharmacist, the writer, the hairdresser and the homeless. Mothers. Fathers. Brothers. Sisters. There were those who had struggled with it their entire lives and those who had no idea what this new affliction was or why it had chosen them. They were ordinary people whose bodies were betraying them. Just like any other unwell person. As a society, that is hard to accept because accepting it means acknowledging our own vulnerability. There are still those among us who would rather attribute such things to demon possession or some other sinister spiritual working.

Many find it easier to put their arms around such things. But the approach sounds a lot like the people who prescribed leeches for sicknesses or courts who burned supposed witches at the stake.

It is well past time that we move past our fear of mental illness, our trepidation of the unkown, and learn the facts of one of the most common diseases in our society. Mental illness is overwhelming but not untreatable. And while it can manifest itself in any number of ways, nearly all of them are manageable. Some with medications and therapy. Some with less. But the most important thing to remember is that those who suffer from such things are no less human than before. And even when they may not seem like it, they are still who they were before. They sometimes just need help finding that person again.

Jeremy D. Smith is the community editor of The Demopolis Times.