Note: I am not a mental health professional. I have personal experiences and some education on the matter, but I am by no means an all-around expert.
Another note: This post is not about writing.
1 in 5 people will experience mental illness. 1 in 3 of those will seek and/or receive treatment for mental illness.
Those numbers are just what we know, what we’ve learned. How accurate is it? Only as accurate as people will admit. What about those keeping silent? What about those who go undiagnosed and untreated? What about the ones who aren’t heard or seen?
Numbers are only accurate based on the information that can be gathered.
Today is #BellLetsTalk day. A big day in Canada where texts, SnapChat filters, videos, tweets, Facebook posts, and more can raise money for mental health initiatives. Today is a day when people are encouraged to learn about mental health and eliminate stigma against mental illness.
I did a presentation once on mental illness. I spoke to two separate groups, maybe a hundred people in total. Teachers, students, friends, people who knew me but not that well. People who soon discovered that I was absent from school for a month during my senior year because – surprise! – I attempted suicide. In April, it will be five years since I was hospitalized, legally unable to leave the hospital premises for a couple of weeks. Unable to return to school immediately once I was released.
Being mentally ill changed my life drastically. I couldn’t be alone, or drive, or work. I had things taken from me so I wouldn’t hurt myself. I lost opportunities and what I could experience was limited. My life was nowhere what it was before then. Everything was up-ended and rearranged. Everything was different.
Mental health plays a role in every part of our lives, including how we exist and interact with others. Not talking about it doesn’t make it go away. We have to talk about it.
A good starting point, in my opinion, is ensuring that everyone feels like they matter. A simple hello can change a whole perspective. I thought no one would notice if I never came back. I came back to people terrified and near tears about what I went through. I came back to people telling me they missed me.
It’s also important to understand that mental health problems are common. Many different people encounter mental health challenges over their lifetime, whether it is a chronic disorder or an episode. Your mental health is tied to experiences, biology, or both. Sometimes mental illness is triggered by events, sometimes it’s spontaneous. I saw familiar names on the corkboard in the psychiatric ward’s classroom. I came back to classmates asking me about my experience in the ward because they were there a month ago.
Mental illness is common. It’s not pretty or easy. It takes courage and resilience and so much strength. It’s more than depression and anxiety, though those are the most common diagnoses. It’s the ugly habits, dried eyes from running out of tears. It’s new wound and old scars, mean voices in your head that can be yours or not. It’s negative thoughts, compulsions, obsessions. It’s emotions out of balance. It alters perceptions and experiences. It’s too much and nothing at all. It’s overwhelming and exhausting and sometimes it seems easier to seek an end instead of the enduring the next second, minute, hour, days.
It doesn’t always come in the form of a disorder. It doesn’t always exist for the long-term. Sometimes they’re seasonal, or episodic. Sometimes it’s life. Sometimes it’s something awful that happened to you (and shouldn’t have). Sometimes it’s just your body changing and your mind struggling to adjust.
I’m lucky. I was diagnosed as a minor and treated immediately without cost. The most my parents paid for my health was the ambulance that came to our house and took me to the nearest hospital when I had a panic attack so bad that I couldn’t see and lost sensation in my limbs.
I’m also lucky because I live in Ontario. Every day, I am thankful for OHIP, for all the benefits and discounts and available health care options. Staying in the hospital cost my family nothing out of pocket. Without OHIP, my medication would have costed hundreds a month because I didn’t have one prescription, I had multiple. I still have multiple.
I’m lucky. I have a close relationship with my mother and she noticed the changes in me. My father was home when I tried to kill myself. My mother called me to check if I made it to school.
What if I hadn’t had all that?
I probably wouldn’t be here.
That shouldn’t be an option.
We need to talk about mental health and mental illness. We need to be able to speak about it as freely as we speak about getting physical illnesses. We need to treat it as it is: real and prevalent. Talk about the bad days, the lows, the bad thoughts. Talk about your relationships with others and yourself. Don’t just focus on the highs, consider the lows too. Try to be open and vulnerable. It’s hard, I know, and it won’t come easily. Find others who understand, some who can emphasize, and people who are willing to listen.
Sometimes listening is the most we can do, as difficult as it can be. Listening to others’ problems can lead to the costs of caring, our own mental health suffering because those we love are suffering. Do it if you can. If you can do it for a living, that’s amazing.
We need more social workers, guidance counselors educated in mental health. We need to ensure emergency personnel are sensitive about mental health status. We need education systems to really care about their students’ mental health and teach about mental health alongside the physical and social sciences. We need support systems and services, even if there is no solid diagnosis. We need to do more and have more to ensure everyone is cared for.
And we need to talk about mental health and mental illness every day.