So far as memory serves, my first insight into the world of mental illness was through art. It was many years ago that I discovered (read about?) Vincent Van Gogh, his Self Portrait with the Bandaged Ear, and the one in which he cuts off his own earlobe. As a child, the natural response to this is an overwhelming ‘why?’ I am not sure how or when this question was satisfactorily answered for me, but by the time I discovered The Scream by Edvard Munch, also many years ago, I was comfortable in the knowledge that there was more than one way of looking at the world.
As someone with a congenital blood disorder, I know how it is to live your life constantly in the shadow of a raincloud… Do I need an umbrella today? What if there’s a storm coming? Will my umbrella hold up in a storm? Will the sun be out in this lifetime? I am familiar also with those living with extreme stages of the same condition, for whom every day brings thunderclouds and lightning. It is not pleasant, to say the least. But with the right support system, you can make it. You can make it.
Why should it be any different with mental illness? It is, after all, as weighty and life-altering and chronic as any critical physiological illness. If we are to believe either C.S. Lewis or research data, mental afflictions are in fact more common than physical afflictions.
One of my teachers in high school suffered from depression. She was a brilliant teacher, but there were days when she’d simply sit in silence at her desk in front of the class for the whole hour and you could almost see her waste away in front of your eyes. I’ve been closely acquainted with people suffering from personality disorders, and I’ve witnessed how without proper medical help and support, life can become unbearable for not only those suffering first hand but for their loved ones as well.
On the other hand, one of my closest friends suffers from a cocktail of mental conditions, but she has been one of the few to seek out medical help and has a loving support system, and continues to remain a warm, kind, good-natured person, friend, sister, and wife. For her I know, every day is a feat, but she faces every new day with bravado, which makes her one of the bravest people I know. To put things into perspective, for me, getting out of bed in the morning is a feat.
However, I’d be lying if I said I do not understand why people tend to turn a blind eye to mental illness in our society. What we do not understand makes us uncomfortable. Hence, we dig into a sordid sack of hollow defenses – nay, excuses – to swat away the stark reality, ignore bare facts; such as
in 2013, 31 million years of healthy life were lost to mental illness in India, a figure estimated to increase by 23 percent by year 2025.
The attitude of denial is embedded in the genetic pastiche of our society.
About five years ago, I was going through a particularly rough patch… I had cut myself off from friends, moved to my hometown and holed up in my room at the family house, lost interest in most things, and was fast sinking into a vortex of disappointment and disorientation. My mother’s solution to this was puerile insistence that I should venture outdoors every day, interspersed with daily rebukes to get my act together, because I wasn’t – she informed me – the only person on the planet who had problems. It would not be an exaggeration to say that an episode of Grey’s Anatomy has done more to make me feel better about myself.
Find a hobby.
Meet new people.
Go out and have fun.
Get some exercise.
Snap out of it.
Stop lazing around.
Make yourself useful.
We keep trying to pass off momentary distractions as the promised cure, because there’s nothing that can’t be fixed by running two laps around the block. Perhaps the next time a friend or coworker suffers from an asthma attack or anaphylaxis spell, we might consider offering them the same advice? It’s all in your mind buddy, I’m sure the fresh air will do you good if you’d just go out for a walk.
By the most conservative estimates, at least 5% of the population lives with a mental illness, which translates to over 50 million people. Nearly half of those with severe mental disease aren’t treated and of those with less severe versions, nearly 9 in 10 go uncared for.
For people battling depression or bipolar or mania or anxiety or a host of other very real conditions that affect real people like you and me with real lives and jobs and families, it is exhausting to fight a war inside their head every day. It is equally frustrating to fight a war against a backward mental healthcare system. To expect them to fight a constant war against society as well, a war against the prejudice and stigma and indifference of those of us who refuse to accept that we are in this together, is a monstrous thing.
At the end of the day, we are all a little broken in our heads, some more so than others, and the noblest thing we can do is help each other mend… some might need a helping hand more so than others, and that’s okay. Because just as there is more than one way of viewing the world, there is also more than one kind of therapy… we can choose to be monsters or we can choose to be healing houses that radiate unbridled support, love and understanding. Someday, who knows, we might need a healing house ourselves.