Like a lot of people, mental illness is something I’ve been well-acquainted with my whole life. Close family members have suffered daily since before my birth and the stigma of societal shame is rooted so deeply that I feel uneasy speaking about it, even now. Some stories aren’t mine to tell; I may be experiencing a climate of mental health awareness but generations before me weren’t as lucky. They have been mistreated by ignorance, mishandled by health services and misunderstood for so long that the damage seems irreparable. I grew up with impossible fantasies of ‘saving’ those around me: if only I did this or said that, or X, Y, Z happened, things would be different. Normal. It took me years to realise I needed to look after myself first. Messages like “You can’t pour from an empty cup” are not easy to internalise. I still get the urge to control the uncontrollable, to ‘save’ people, and I’m still far away from accepting that self-care is not selfish.
My mind has been a sea of fog for too long so I made a choice. I can stay frustrated at injustice or I can use the knowledge I’ve attained over the years to shed some enlightenment. There are only so many times you can lie on your bed listening to The Smiths, after all. (That’s a lie, The Smiths are timeless, and self-compassion is important!).
Until very recently, secrecy around battling with your mental health was advised for fear of prejudice. 1 in 4 people struggle with a mental illness at any time and yet the mental health spectrum is yet to be common knowledge. There’s an unconscious separation between mentally ‘well’ and mentally ‘ill’ as if it were black and white. Several factors play into this:
The Sociopathic Model of Society
From a young age we are taught our worth is defined by material things and that success is a result of being ruthless. Ideas such as “It’s dog eat dog out there” and “every man for himself” are presented to us as ‘facts of life’ so we internalise the script. It becomes our inner reality. We are taught to honour our ego and battle with our emotions: we don’t learn to have empathy for ourselves, let alone anybody else. The illusion that you are solely responsible for every fact of your life corresponds to individuals seeing their mental health as entirely within their control, and therefore suffering seems like a personal weakness. Of course, this is untrue. When we live in a culture that labels unorthodox behaviour as ‘insane/nutty’ etc, we force people to repress their feelings out of self-preservation. The notion that normality equates to a constantly ‘happy’ or well-balanced mind is unrealistic and ignorant. You are not an anomaly if some days are harder than others. That is normal. That is human.
Masculinity and Misogyny
The bogus ‘battle of the sexes’ is indoctrinated into us as children. Gender roles limit us in numerous nuanced ways, from men being told to ‘man up’ when upset to women being routinely objectified. Our society is patriarchal so the fact of gender as a performance is more obviously superfluous and thus ridiculed in women, who are labelled ‘crazy’ as a consequence of ‘othering’. Allegedly, feelings are ‘feminine’. Realistically, all of us are emotional beings. Male suicide rates are high, in part, because the pressures of toxic masculinity – where people are forced to live through their ego and stuff their feelings as though they aren’t there, place an unfair burden on a person. It’s only in the 21st century that we are beginning to change the conversation: to allow people to let their guard down. Again, we have suffered at the hands of separatism. The age of information is allowing us to bridge the gaps and offer support to healthy self-expression but subconscious beliefs are hard to shift, especially when they have media support. The work continues.
A Lack of Understanding
There’s still an unspoken idea that all brains are created equal. We have to seek out information that gives our greater opportunities for self-awareness, such as the fact some people are genetically predisposed to depression or psychopathy, or that a toxic environment in youth can alter the way your brain develops. Likewise, traumatic events can trigger chemical imbalances at any stage in life and it’s necessary to acknowledge how your mind works. The way a person’s brain operates is not their fault and I hope you never fall into the trap of judging yourself for it. It is what it is, and more importantly, it can change. Our brains are incredibly powerful.
These are a few reasons as to why I think mental health has been misunderstood for so long. In a future post I’m going to dispense some ideas of how you can look after your mental health, no matter who you are. Or, at least, I’m going to share what’s worked for me.
May the force be with you.