Just like many sayings of days past, the song “Losing My Religion” by REM doesn’t have anything to do with a church or any type of religion. It is an old Southern saying about being pushed to your limit or going a little crazy. Maybe not in your lifetime (if you’re relatively young) but there are people alive today who will vividly remember the well known stigma of having someone in the family or knew someone who had a mental illness. While psychiatry has been around for quite some time, the social understanding, acceptance and treatment of those living with mental illness has come a long way, but still bears a stigma, even today.
Years ago, people who had a “nervous breakdown” or a “mental collapse” were often carted off to mental institutions and put through terrifying ordeals of tests, treatments and medications that often left them worse off than they were beforehand. Children who were uncontrollable were often sent off to institutions as well, some to spend their childhood there, lost and disconnected from warm, loving family life.
I was reading a news story today about Kristen Bell opening up about living with anxiety. I’ve always thought it was a good thing for those in the spotlight to talk about such matters. Hearing someone we’ve seen coping “so well” with life, working in movies, living a fulfilling life come out and say how they’ve lived so long with anxiety, depression is refreshing. I get a little puzzled when people talk about how “brave” they are for saying it out loud. THAT is why we have a stigma about it.
You don’t hear someone coming out and talking about how brave they were when they got their teeth cleaned or got their yearly physical. Mental health and physical health go hand in hand. People spend so much time arguing about the caramel color in their pancake syrup than they do about advocating for adequate mental health coverage.
I have suffered from anxiety and a panic disorder for years. I take daily medication for it now. However, for years, I was stigmatized by family, friends and strangers for my actions. This lasted well into my adulthood, when I was traumatized by adopted parent’s extended family. When I lost my mother, father and husband in quite the short period of time, I had little to no support throughout. Yes, I had friends in the beginning, but with time, that tends to fade away. People care and inquire about how you’re doing, but the support that you truly need should come from a professional. It should be easily accessible and affordable.
Having two children with Autism, I have seen just how even today’s society is so clueless about how to deal with mental illness. Since my daughter always doesn’t “act” Autistic, she’s even had a teacher’s aide tell her she doesn’t have Autism. After fighting for six years to get the school to finally work with her Autism to better her ability to learn, someone goes ahead and does something like that. Now her classmates call her a liar, saying she made it up. I had a woman sitting next to me at the DMV (you know how you get stuck sitting next to someone for two hours and you chat) tell me that my sons didn’t “look like he had Autism”. Okay, didn’t know it had a look.
There’s a reason why it’s called mental health. Just like physical health, it’s something that should be asked about, diagnosed and treated just like any other medical condition. A lot of people think that symptoms are either made up or conveniently lumped together to make it easier for people to get access to medications. Sure, in some cases, that may be true. People also feign physical illnesses for the same reason. However, we as a society need to start taking a hard look at how we treat mental illness in our society.
Today there are many people who feel different or are anxious, depressed, lost and feel like they have nowhere to turn and need help from trained, caring professionals. I know I found them when my husband died and my young children needed more support than I could give them. I still see a therapist and it’s a great way to learn more about yourself and how you’re feeling. Working things out with someone who can help decipher what you’re going through and give you fresh ideas and insight about how to make things work better in your life is a great thing!