Recently, the series Thirteen Reasons Why was released on Netflix. This is based on a book my students have been reading for years. The tough subject matter encourages them to talk about the very serious issue, and since its release, every teen I know has watched it and is talking about it. Some people believe that it’s not good for them to be talking about suicide. That it is too heavy of a subject for them to confront, but since it is the second leading cause of death for teens and young adults, I believe people should be talking about it more, adults should be talking about it with them, and talking about how we and they are going to change that statistic and improve mental health in general.
Talking about real life stuff is good. We need to talk about things: mental illness, gender, culture, suicide, the past, the future, sex, love, hate, abuse, poverty, racism, sexism. We need to talk about it all. Everything. Talking is how ideas are formed, how good ones are embraced, and bad ones are dismissed. Talking is for building trust and community. Talking is how we gain perspective and learn that not everyone feels the same way about all things, and that that’s ok.
Not talking about things is for cavemen and cavewomen. Not talking about things is what keeps things from moving forward, what keeps us in the dark. Not talking about things is why some people are still treated badly, why some people don’t get the help and support they need, why some people kill themselves over things that can be overcome. Not talking about things has innumerable negative consequences on our world and the people in it: It makes people unable to fully understand things, it sends the impression that they are wrong, and it puts people in danger.
Despite how uncomfortable this topic makes some people, I’m not being overly sensitive, hyperbolical or dramatic by saying ignorance (i.e. not knowing things as a result of not talking about/learning about things) is the root of all pain and suffering. Ignorance is like living in a dark room with only saltine crackers and water when just beyond the door there is an all-you-can-eat buffet with attractive servers walking around with trays of freshly-squeezed juice. Ok, let me give this some context:
Mental illness reared its ugly head in my life before I knew what it was. My parents’ level of ignorance to the mental illness which afflicted my brother caused it to be a bigger problem than, I believe, it might have been had their parents talked to them about the mental illness in their families. I understand that it’s scary, and that talking about it, putting words to it, meant admitting it was real, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Not dealing with it is wrong. Despite how it may sound, I don’t blame my parents for ignoring his behaviors or not getting him professional help many, many years ago. I blame society.
There is a long history in our world of mistreatment of those afflicted by mental illness, of professionals performing cruel experiments and socially accepted treatments on mentally ill people, of treating them like outcasts. I think that especially in small, rural, conservative communities people just don’t talk about mental illness. Just like Rachel Hollis says in her blog post from 2013, admitting there was something wrong with a family member was too sad and embarrassing. Instead of there being an outpouring of support and suggestions on what to do like there would have been for a child with a learning disability or a cough that wouldn’t go away, the reality of a mental disorder that caused enraged and violent outbursts wasn’t something people brought up at the reception hall over coffee and donuts. Depression, addiction, manic-depressive disorder, these were (are?) regarded as things to deal with on your own, in the silence of your prayers, or at least behind a partition. Talking to a therapist didn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar. Talking about it in general was too much of a taboo.
I, on the other hand, who felt the force of my brother’s fierce mental clamoring first hand, (when my parents were at work or when we were left alone in a backroom of Grandma and Grandpa’s house or anytime we were away from adults) I tried to talk about it all the time. While my brother is funny, intelligent, has a great energy to him that can cause others to share in his excitement about things, he also has an alarmingly violent vocabulary, a tendency to hurt living things, the strength of a bull, and an unpredictable nature to go from laughing with you to having his hands around your neck. For people who knew the funny charismatic side of him, believing the other side existed was difficult; it was far simpler to dismiss the sisters’ complaints or chalk it up to “boys will be boys.” Admitting that his impulse to kill frogs might mean he was mentally, chemically unbalanced wasn’t something my parents seemed able to do.
I get it now, that what was going on inside his brain was uncontrollable and caused him to do things a healthy person wouldn’t do. I got it the first time I heard the term “bipolar disorder” in my high school psychology elective. He wasn’t just super mean and violent and unpredictable, he was sick. Knowing this alone didn’t make the moments more tolerable or less painful, but the knowledge gave me perspective, and it allowed me to eventually forgive him for his actions.
Which leads me to this post: to encourage people to talk about, and talk to, the people in their lives who are suffering from things out of their control so we can prevent terrible things from happening to them and others and as a result of their mental illness. I was physically in danger more than a few times in my life because of my brother’s mental illness. His children have been in danger because he did not ever learn to manage his mental illness. Not talking about things, therefore remaining ignorant about things, puts people in danger. It’s time we stop that.
I always used to say, “he’s going to end up in jail or killed if he doesn’t change,” referring to his tourette’s syndrome-style outbursts of cruel and unusual insults and behaviors. The better of these two possibilities has happened, and I would do anything to prevent the latter, but I know that it isn’t in my power to do that. Since he is an adult now, he has to be the one to elect to get the help he requires to be able to save himself. I also know that I am not going to be someone to sit by silently and pray instead of taking action to change how people see and talk about mental illness. The first step to changing that, is simply by talking about it.
A couple of years ago he asked me to attend a group therapy session with him, as far as I know his only attempt at getting professional help. Supporting the person who abused me, physically and mentally (though I will tell you right now the mental abuse had a more enduring impact on my life) was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, and one of the best. At this session, I heard my brother take responsibility for his actions, and while the lessons learned there did not seem to last long in his life, it taught me that there is hope, that he wants to be better, but that his mental illness is in the way. The doctor there called it a dis-ease. He described what was going on in his head, and others who also suffer from mental illness, as a disruption of ease. That what a typical person sees as easy is not easy to them. I’ve also seen this dis-ease in many of my adolescent students, in friends and colleagues, and in other members of my family. It needs to be ok to say, have you tried therapy? in the same conversation where we tell the person we are here for them. You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer to keep thinking positive thoughts and expect it to go away; we need to deal with depression and other more serious forms of mental illness the way we deal with any serious illness: by getting professional and medical help for it while showing them love and support.
This reality of dis-ease cannot be ignored. It needs to be talked about. We need to make it acceptable in society, on social media, in schools, at home, in church, to talk about that which afflicts one in five adults, (one in seventeen for more serious mental illnesses like my brother has). The topic is gaining more exposure, thanks to celebrities like Lady Gaga and Prince William’s Heads Together project ; Robin Williams’ suicide also kindled compassion and conversation about the topic; and amazing student organizations like Brighton, Colorado’s (Brighton Youth Commission) BYC’s annual SPEAK Week is building momentum in getting people to speak up about life’s challenges. But we still have more work to do.
Please leave a comment about your experiences with mental illness, what you did to get help or help others through it.
Update, 6 May: A family friend shared this link with me if you’d like to do some further reading: http://lineacinda.com/