“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.”
- Glenn Close, actor
Mary and I often talk as we have our first cup of morning coffee. Or rather, it is as she takes her first cup and I’m finishing my third. And as many seniors do, we sometimes report on our recent ailments:
“My stomach feels slightly sore and tender where the incisions were made” Mary said. “It has been more than a year since the operation, so I guess it must be just psychological.”
That phrase“ just psychological” set me to thinking about the difficulty most of us have understanding and discussing mental illness without lapsing into it as simply “a matter of the mind.”
We think of diseases with physical symptoms and bodily anomalies as actual, like a virus or a wound, but think of mental illnesses as only in the mind. Psychological problems are often regarded as a sign of mental weakness — that we somehow allow ourself to be emotionally overwhelmed and the only antidote is mental fortitude and self discipline. It is tempting to regard emotional problems as self caused and self cureable — to think that thoughts and feelings are under our conscious control and subject to our willful change. I have heard pop psychologists and television evangelists say, “If your mind gives you difficulty, then simply change your mind.”
There are many ways our culture has become more enlightened and compassionate but often mental illness is still regarded as a sort of peculiar affliction that can be dealt with by “toughing it out,” “straightening up,” or using strong “willpower.”
I wish it was that simple. Neither Mary nor I accept the notion that mental illnesses are “just psychological.” We each have learned that mental sicknesses are true sicknesses of the whole person and often require regular treatment and consistent medication.
One in five adults experiences mental illness. Symptoms often begin before age 14. In 2020, we still lack clear definition and understanding of these diseases. There is often a long delay — even decades — between early symptoms and seeking help. And, “cure” is not a term found in mental illness research.
Finding treatment for young people is especially frustrating. We know a family who struggled for years to find workable treatment for their preteen/teenage daughter. They found affordable treatment was available only if their child was arrested and incarcerated.
Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter has established a Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism as an effort of the Carter Center. The fellowship supports writers and reporters who explain mental illnesses clearly and ask the right questions to initiate changes.
A reporter for Illinois Public Media aired a series of broadcasts on the dilemma faced by parents of children with severe mental illnesses. He found more than 100 parents who were forced to abandon their own child in order to get them affordable treatment. His reports led to needed legislation.
The National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI) supports research, education and treatment in its publications and is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization. Their publication, Advocate, has writings by those who have suffered from mental illness. The NAMI motto is, “We get it. We’ve been there.”
These are the worst of times for mental health and wellness. The current coronavirus pandemic is a globally traumatic event. Each of us and most all people in the world are coping with changes in schedule, finances, and what can even be seen or done. We share a sense of collective unease and fear. We don’t know what might happen next. Even those not stricken with severe mental illnesses are not exempt from the diseases of stress, depression and anxiety. We seek a light at the end of the tunnel.
Author and performer Leonard Cohen once said, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” The current pandemic may make a crack for mental disturbances to seep in, but it can let the light in — if we will only see it.