I was Raised to Not Believe in Mental Illness

(but that didn’t stop me from suffering from it)

A Take This 2013 year in review

by: Russ Pitts


photo by Flickr user MzScarlett

photo by Flickr user MzScarlett

I used to say I was raised to not believe in mental illness. And, while this is true, it’s not the whole truth.

I was raised to believe a lot of things — or rather I was exposed to a lot of beliefs — but I ultimately made my own choices and formed my own beliefs. Yet for the longest time I’ve held to that non-belief in metal illness, claiming I was raised to it. In spite of my twinges of discomfort at the thought. In spite of my own direct experience. In spite of the truth.

As I look back at 2013 I realize that I’ve spent a good chunk of it addressing mental illness. I’ve started seeing a therapist to help understand and control my anxiety. I’ve counseled friends and family. I’ve even helped start a charitable organization dedicated to helping eradicate the stigma of mental illness, www.takethis.org.

I used to say I didn’t believe in mental illness. My experiences this year call that suggestion into question. And yet, it’s true I was raised to not believe, or rather to reject the notion that mental illness was a thing worth talking about. As we plunge into 2014 and all of the challenges and triumphs it will bring, why that is requires some exploration.

**

I have a relative, who I won’t name, who recommends to anyone suffering from mental illness that they should buy a book. Read a book on psychiatry and you’ll never need to visit a shrink, is the theory.

This relative of mine is a good person. A strong, independent survivor-type. They’ve been through some tough times and emerged better for them. This is a person who has done very well in spite of many challenges and obstacles. I have limitless respect for them and the struggles they have faced. And yet they are dead wrong about mental illness.

It’s true there is value in understanding how the mind works, why people behave a certain way and what we might do to anticipate those causes and effects. Understanding psychology is useful in many ways, especially in business dealings. Knowing what people value and how they will behave to adhere to those values can make one a savvy negotiator, as is my relative.

There is also value in understanding mental illness, for sure. Knowing what we might expect from the things that ail us is important, often critically. I know that I suffer from anxiety and I understand how that effects me. When I feel those effects, I recognize them for what they are, and this helps me endure them without allowing them to worsen.

Knowledge is power. But it is not a cure.

I had chicken pox once, when I was young. I read up on it in the World Book Encyclopedia. I learned a lot about chicken pox. I learned how and why the chicken pox scabs form and that scratching them will cause permanent scars. But after reading all of that I still had chicken pox. And knowing scratching the scabs would cause scars didn’t stop me from doing it, as the now very old and faded scar on my left nostril will attest. Reading a book did not cure me.

Another relative of mine becomes self-righteously furious when discussing mental illness, especially depression. This person assigns intent to those who suffer, suggesting that they choose to be ill. He becomes especially irate when discussing people who take their own lives as a result of depression. To him this is unconscionable. He considers it a failure, on their part.

This person, too, is someone I love and respect but I have come to abhor their belief. Suffice to say I don’t agree that anyone “chooses” to be mentally ill any more than I chose many years ago to have chicken pox. Nor do I believe that anyone who is clinically depressed and then takes their own life has chosen to do so. At least, not any more than I chose to scratch at my pox scabs. You can hold it in for only so long until you can’t. That’s why many depressives commit suicide. They hold it in for as long as they can and then, sometimes, they can’t hold it in any more.

Ask anyone who’s struggling with depression if they’d cure themselves by simply choosing to be well, or reading a book, and they’d unanimously say yes. If only it were that simple.

So that’s what I mean when I say I was raised to not believe in mental illness. I was raised around people who ascribe to mental illness the same reality as the belief that eating a certain flavor of pea on New Years Day will bring you luck. Eat your peas and you will have luck. Read a book and you will be well. As if luck and mental illness were both vaguely mystical yet utterly irrelevant notions that could be willed into or out of existence by the power of superstitions alone.

I remember the exact year I had chicken pox. I was in the second grade and my brother, who is four years my senior, was in the sixth. At our school, sixth grade was the highest elementary grade before graduating to another school, and so this was his last year there. Every year they had a sort of “track and field” games day, where children would play games like balancing an egg on a spoon, or the three-legged race or hopscotch. There would be prizes and food and a general carnival atmosphere. It was a celebration.

My brother, for whatever reason, had not managed to attend Field Day in any of the years he’d been at that school and this year was his last chance. So, naturally right before the event I got chicken pox. Then, as tends to happen, he got it too. He was forbidden from attending the Field Day and he blamed me. Violently.

Of course, any reasonable person would agree that I hadn’t chosen to infect my brother with chicken pox any more than I’d chosen to become ill myself. No more than he’d chosen to become ill. It just happened. Because that’s how disease works. And yet there’s a certain validity to the suggestion that my brother wouldn’t have become ill if I hadn’t been ill. His blame was unreasonable, but understandable. He was wrong, but he had a seemingly logical basis for believing he was right. And so he did.

Now imagine if, instead of having chicken pox, I’d had depression. Imagine if my hypothetical mental illness had caused disruption in our household, as it surely would have. Perhaps it might have been so severe a disruption as to interfere in my brother’s life, the way my chicken pox did. He’d probably feel justified in shaming me. Perhaps even more violently, since it’d be all too easy for him to dismiss my hypothetical mental illness as imagined, or just for the attention.

I know that many people reading this will be able to imagine this scenario very well, because they have lived through it — are living through it. We hear from them every day at www.takethis.org. People who are suffering from their emotional distress and then suffering again from the knowledge that their distress isn’t understood or is a source of shame. Imagine if, when a child has chicken pox we told them their symptoms were a fantasy, or something they could have helped. How much — and for how long — would this torment a child? Yet this is how we treat those with mental illness.

Let’s go back to my relative who feels righteous fury over mental illness. I was talking to this person once about Kurt Cobain, the singer of the band Nirvana. Cobain famously suffered from depression, which had led him to a drug addiction, and both conditions were sources of intense struggle for him. He eventually lost that struggle and took his own life.

This relative of mine, speaking of Cobain, rants and raves over the assumption that Cobain chose to be ill, and then, by extension, chose to take his own life. My relative speaks of how Cobain abandoned his wife and then young daughter. He speaks of the terrible emotional pain and suffering these two women must have endured. He speaks of the trauma of having found their loved one dead and then having to live with that experience, and the knowledge that he had left them. My relative talks of these things the way he’d speak of someone choosing a divorce or simply walking out of the house and never returning. He blames Cobain, not the illness. He believes Cobain should have been able to stop himself for the sake of those he loved. He assigns intent, and by extension, blame. And you would have no luck whatsoever in trying to convince him he’s wrong.

And yet he is wrong. The reality of mental illness in our society is that it’s still widely misunderstood. Many believe, like my relatives did, that people who are mentally ill are making a choice to be that way. What’s worse, many people who suffer believe this as well.

I used to be like that. I was raised to not believe in mental illness and so what I was experiencing, I believed, was something else. And I felt shame for what I was feeling, and so I proclaimed loudly that I did not believe it existed, as if I was whistling past a graveyard or throwing salt over my shoulder.

I often wonder now how many people I hurt through my ignorance. How many people heard me say “I don’t believe in mental illness,” and then felt worse about themselves? How many friends and family members did I alienate by causing them to doubt their own illness? How much suffering did I amplify by shaming it?

I say that I was raised to not believe in mental illness, and that’s not a lie. The whole truth is that we all have been, and continue to be influenced by a warped perception of mental illness inflicted upon us by ignorance and misunderstanding. That it’s a scary thing. That those who suffer can’t be relied upon, or are damaged irreparably. Or, worse, that it’s simply not real. We are living in a culture and at a time when people of all educations, backgrounds, sexes, races and religions believe with a clear conscience that mental illness is not actually an illness.

That is why www.takethis.org exists. Because people who are made to feel alone because of their suffering will only suffer more. And we can help them. We have to help them. Because it’s dangerous to go alone.

Take This has spent the better part of 2013 preparing for the challenges we’ll face in the New Year. We’re more organized now than we ever have been, and even more dedicated to helping spread awareness, education and empathy. In the next few months we’ll be announcing major initiatives, and I’m excited for the work we’ve got in store. But we’ve only just begun.

We need your help. Please spread the word. Donate if you can. And help us with your words, actions and empathy to eradicate the stigma of mental illness once and for all.

Thanks. And everyone please have a happy and safe New Year.

-R