“I just don't think you have enough AIDS to get treatment.” “I think we'll wait to begin your chemo until you have more cancer.” “Your Ebola isn't advanced enough for us to do anything about it. Go home, rest up and when it gets worse give us a call.” They all sound ridiculous don't they? If you'd never tell someone their ALS is only a little symptomatic, why make the mentally ill feel as though they aren't sick enough for treatment?
The idea that we must be MORE ill to seek help pervades the minds of so many of the mentally ill. I battled it myself for years before finally capitulating. People I respect have quietly admitted feeling guilty for taking their pills or seeing a therapist. The idea of not being sick enough to warrant treatment runs concurrent to feeling as though we should be able to handle it ourselves.
Despite knowing on a cognitive level what mental illness is, the illness itself often poisons our mind and keeps us from seeking the help we need. People with diagnosed mental illnesses live significantly shorter lives than those without. Knowing that, we should be making it easier for people to seek treatment, not significantly more difficult.
Medical treatment in the United States has become a privilege, something doled out on the basis of how much money you have and what your insurance company will cover. As we triage ourselves and our families, seeing doctors and nurses for only the most severe illnesses as a method of saving a precious few dollars, invisible illnesses like Depression, Anxiety, Bi-Polar Disorder and their ilk often take a back seat to seemingly more severe ailments.
We can't see it so it doesn't exist. There isn't a test for mental illness. I can't go to the doctor and ask her to give me a blood test for my depression as if I had virus or infection. We can't do a body scan and identify the mass that is responsible for a persons Anxiety. Because these illnesses can't be identified in the traditional sense, we often feel as though we're making them up, that they are phantoms.
The thought process behind that is as damaging as the disease itself. It feeds into the false narrative that a person is losing control of their life. “What's wrong with me that I can't be happy with what I have. I'm always sad. I can't do this anymore.” The chances of a positive outcome shrink the longer we let our disease go unchecked.
Many of us grew up with our only exposure to mental illness via the television, seeing only the mumbling, cowering homeless man, shrieking vagabond or crazed killer. We didn't see the mom suffering silently through post partem depression. We didn't understand how a popular teacher could choose to end his life. We missed the signs because we didn't know them.
I didn't understand when a friends mother had to be hospitalized for what my parents called manic depression. I couldn't grasp the concept because mental illness was a completely foreign concept to me. I didn't know that I was depressed because I didn't know what depression was.
We laughed at people who had nervous breakdowns. We sneered at the people who washed out of college or were hospitalized for the selfish act of attempting to kill themselves. We didn't understand because mental illness was the dark underbelly of a society clinging to the false notion of a Utopian paradise. Nobody mentioned it unless it was in hushed tones of pity and shame.
Mental illness just didn't exist on the same spectrum as Cancer, AIDS or even Alzheimer's. We learned about it by having it, and that left us completely unprepared for dealing with the fallout. Nobody told us our minds could betray us. They didn't tell us that help was available and they didn't let us know there shouldn't be shame in asking for it. We were left to sink or swim, and far too many of us disappeared beneath the waves never to be seen again.
Yes. I still harbor feelings of guilt when I seek treatment, as if I'm stealing it from someone who needs it more. I hesitate to reach out to friends because I believe their lives are made that much more difficult by my presence and I think twice before telling my family I need some “me” time. I still feel shame for asking for help because I have assigned my own stigma.
Having a mental illness is like having a liar living in your head. He sounds like you. He uses your words, tones and inflections. He is persistent and patient, waiting for the right moment to strike and seeking out cracks or soft spots in your cognitive blockades. He will tell you not only that you are unworthy of help, but unworthy of life itself.
That's where the problem begins really. When our heads have us convinced that we aren't worth helping, we do not need anyone else telling us the same thing. We grade many illnesses based upon the severity of their infection, and it's OK to do so with mental illness. However, just as it will never be permissible to tell a child with Leukemia that they just aren't ill enough for treatment, so it is with our mental health.
The affliction alone makes us worthy of seeking help. It has nothing to do with how far down into the darkness we have fallen. Having fallen helplessly into the abyss, no matter how deeply, means help is both necessary and warranted.