By Amanda Castillo
Mental illness—In America, it is a phrase that is met with judgement, assumptions, and a lot of stigma. For those who experience mental illness, they are plagued with feelings of isolation and, oftentimes, a lack of compassion and understanding from those around them. On the other hand, people who do not experience mental illness often feel uncomfortable thinking about it and are unsure of how to approach people who are open about their mental illness. The end result is a distinct separation and wariness from both parties and a lack of supportive communities for people who suffer from mental illness.
Mental illness is often thought of as something that is a result of bad genetics or a bad lot in life, but really it is much more complicated than that. Illnesses such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder can arise abruptly due to traumatic incidents or an extreme change in a person’s situation. Because these illnesses can manifest abruptly and are often influenced by pressure and stress from everyday life, at least in the case of depression and anxiety, they are viewed as a temporary rough patch to get through individually rather than serious illnesses. Ultimately because they are not viewed as illnesses by and large, there are a lot of dismissive attitudes and, once again, a distinct lack of support for those suffering from mental illness.
How then can we fix this?
The most important thing to understand about mental illness is that, whether you suffer from it or you are close to someone who does, it does not make you or that person irredeemable. It may be a long road to recovery, but mental illness is not a defining factor in a person.
Secondly, mental illness, in and of itself, does not make a person weak. Furthermore, the decision to seek professional help does not make a person weak and should be met with support rather than criticism. There is intense stigma surrounding the areas of therapy, counseling and medication as solutions for mental illness. Those who seek therapy or counseling are seen as attention-seeking or weak, and those who turn to medication are seen as drug addicts. Neither avenue is better than the other as each person’s experience with mental illness is different, and both decisions should be met with compassionate support from those around them.
Thirdly, being close to someone with mental illness does not make you responsible for that person. It is very easy to fall into the perception that someone with mental illness needs help functioning in their day-to-day activities, especially with more clearly visible illnesses like chronic depression or anxiety. It is important to remember that you are someone to support them but that your support is not, and should not be, a replacement for professional help.
Lastly, being close to someone with mental illness does not mean that you should ignore your own well-being for the sake of theirs. Supporting someone through their recovery/treatment of mental illness is something that can be very emotionally involved, and if it is taking a toll on you, then you do have the right and option to distance yourself for your own well-being. Supporting someone through treatment is just that, supporting them.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do to support someone with mental illness is to be open-minded, supportive, and compassionate to the things they are experiencing. You should be encouraging and supportive of their decisions to get treatment or begin the road to recovery but you should not endeavor to entirely replace professional treatment.