Look around. One in five of us will have a diagnosis of mental illness. You either have “a cousin” who grapples with this difficulty or perhaps it’s you. Yet the struggles are invisible, often even to loved ones; they’re carefully hidden behind masks or inside self-constructed shells of seeming well-being.
Bill Russell, the basketball legend said “We learn to make a shell for ourselves when we are young and then spend the rest of our lives hoping for someone to reach inside and touch us.” Such barriers can be very thick and remain unbroken, especially when mixed with the fear and confusion of a mind burdened by brain disease. It’s going to take effort on both sides of that dividing wall for it to come down. But it has to happen.
If mental illness had the same outward symptoms as mumps or measles, its victims and their families would find comfort in knowing that they are not so alone, and we would likely rise to the crisis as a broader community. If it was contagious or its human costs made clear, policy-makers would deal with the issue as the public health crisis that it is.
So many lives are cruelly limited by these invisible traces, resulting in diminished achievement, self-medication and misery. So many more problems with seemingly unrelated labels, public and private, stem from this dark corner of so many lives. Addiction, broken families, lack of employment, poverty, diminished general health and disquieting and dangerous behavior also play out in the lives of others. How many news stories mention mental health and medication in the context of tragedy?
Let’s put the problem under a bright light and talk about it. How we see and address brain disease as a community must change.
We, who the mental health community gingerly label as consumers, peers and families, must begin speaking our truth to the hearts and minds of others. Our condition must be personalized, given names and faces in shared experiences as a part of a public conversation before we can fairly assume that folks don’t care. Without folks realizing that there is a problem down the hall, next door or up the street, brain disease is too easily minimized as some personal weakness or acquired neurosis that personal will and self-discipline might cure.
So tell your story or actively listen when someone tries to tell you theirs. However well intentioned, verbal acceptance and changing the subject is an important opportunity missed.
However uncomfortable candor can be liberating and the source of the strongest of relationships. Families desperately need to find one another’s truest selves; and we each need all of the allies that truth might garner. Start with family and close friends, then teachers, colleagues and policy-makers. There is sad inspiration in the growing number of painfully honest obituaries citing struggles with mental illness. Families in grief are reaching out and tapping us on the shoulder.
Those who listen must seek to understand the illness, how help has worked, what the challenges are and how you might be a better friend with new understanding. Your acceptance of the person with a mental illness will do the most to break down that wall and only you can strike that blow.
Every movement has a tipping point where those affected join hands with those who care to say “We are here, we count and this is what is going on.” Only when there is a public hunger for change is it possible in a world of competing needs.
The good news is that our efforts cannot be damned by politics or from any position on the ideological scale. The only enemy of fixing that which is truly broken and costing everyone is people not knowing. The first step is for people to know. We each need to be part of making that happen.
Lives are being drained in a lot of different houses on almost every street. The current system of assistance, however well intended, is rarely adequate for anyone.
Try saying it: “Hey, friend, there is something I need to tell you… .” Or: “Friend, I’m worried. Is something troubling you?”
The conversations will help to free all of us.
Harry Payne, a Raleigh attorney, is a former commissioner of the N.C. Department of Labor and former chairman of the Employment Security Commission. He now is the new Executive Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness, Wake County chapter.