It is common in our society to talk about mental illness in very casual or even hurtful terms. We call people “crazy”, “psycho”, “bipolar”, “OCD”, “ADD”, and “insane” with ease and playfulness. We use actual medical diagnoses as a way to make fun of people who act differently than what our culture expects. We even use these terms to make fun of ourselves casually in conversation with others to explain or rationalize when we act differently than is expected. “That’s just my OCD – that’s why I am so focused on making sure my house is clean.”
On the other hand, mental illnesses are actual medical concerns for millions of people, diagnosed, medicated and treated with interventions much as diabetes, asthma, or cancer is. But you never hear anyone saying playfully, “Oh, he’s so diabetic.”
Why is this?
Mental illnesses are loaded with stigma and much of this comes from the fact that they manifest emotionally or behaviorally. And emotions and behaviors are things - unlike blood sugar, breathing capacity, or mutated cells – that people expect that they can control. This makes it very difficult for people to understand why people cannot sometimes control their behaviors or emotions as they are expected to. This is the very definition of a mental illness and the reason why they are often not taken seriously.
Mental illnesses are basically exaggerations of normal human behavior that interfere with daily life. That is to say, almost every symptom of every mental illness can be found in how human beings feel and behave every day. Each of us is compulsive sometimes – saying something without thinking. Each of us is obsessive sometimes – worrying about how others think about us. But that doesn’t mean that we have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). In order to have these, we have to have these behaviors and emotions to an extreme that interferes with daily life. And to someone who has this devastating disorder, it is no casual thing. True obsessive compulsive disorder interferes with a person’s life so that often he or she is completely unable to interact with society or others in a healthy way.
Mental illnesses, for those who have them, are not a choice. In fact, most individuals who are diagnosed with a mental illness would rather choose not to have this disorder. Many work extremely hard to control their symptoms. And most do a terrifically good job with the interventions of therapy, medication, and sheer willpower. In fact, the stereotypical picture of someone with a mental illness as a “crazy”, “homeless”, “dangerous”, or “criminal” person just aren’t true. The truth is that each of us is probably surrounded by mentally ill individuals each and every day all day long and have no idea. They are the mother who drops off her children at school, the school teacher who teaches them, the brilliant scientist, the banker, the politician, or our best friend.
You may never know that someone close to you has a mental illness because, unlike diabetes or asthma which are socially acceptable disorders, mental illness is not. So often people who suffer, suffer alone and in secret for fear of the stigma attached to it. This often leaves individuals with mental illnesses feeling unsupported when support is one of the biggest things anyone suffering from a chronic condition needs.
Mental illness is real but until we recognizes this and actively work to understand it and not make fun of it so casually, those suffering from it will continue to be one of our most vulnerable populations.