There are words like “independence” and “rugged individualism” and “capable” that mean a lot to certain people. There are also words like “anxious” or “depressed” that make some people roll their eyes. “Just because he/she is anxious doesn’t mean he/she can’t work,” is a phrase I’ve heard repeated, in some form or another, too many times to count. I’ve seen rolled eyes and diminutive shrugs and heard a whole lot of people spitting words that all mean, “poor mental health is over-played, let’s talk about something else.”
But mental health is as important as it is overlooked: in the United States, almost half of adults (46.4 percent) will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. Almost half. As an easy comparison, the American Cancer Society found that men have a 39.66 percent probability of developing cancer in their lifetime while women have a 37.65 percent chance. Statistically, you’re more likely to suffer from a mental health ailment than you are to be diagnosed with cancer, and yet, cancer remains one of our top fears. We erect entire organizations around the eradication of cancers (to little avail), yet fewer institutions exist around mental health , and the mental health profession is consistently and egregiously understaffed.
Why? In part, because we don’t like to talk about it. We stigmatize those with mental health illnesses to such a degree that admitting to a mental health illness can be deeply shameful, though it shouldn’t be.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt self-conscious or even questioned my eating disorder by hearing things like, “Why don’t you just eat?” Or, “I WISH I had anorexia, maybe I’d be able to lose a few pounds,” or, “It’s just all in your head.” The way in which we talk about food and our bodies is just as damning: the relative at Christmas who picks apart how much we’re eating. The New Year’s resolutions that are so heavily food and diet-centric that the beginning of January accounts for nearly 11% of all gym membership purchases. In a culture that invalidates, questions, and stigmatizes mental health issues at every turn, those of us who suffer are often left feeling crazy. The really dumb part is that about half of us feel this way.
At a recent family gathering, food dominated the conversation. What foods taste good, which foods are bad for our health, what we prefer to eat, how much we ate and shouldn’t have, etc. I removed myself from the room because those types of conversations are not good for me to be around. This is what it’s like to live in an eating disordered brain: every time someone says something critical about food and/or their bodies, my brain feels bigger and louder, sometimes as if it’s screaming at me. And I want to scream back, to shut the entire world out. When it gets very bad, I feel months of therapy unravel and my coping mechanisms fall quiet.
My brain feels too large for my skull, and I mentally and emotionally shut down. I either have to shut down, or I risk being thrown back into the maddening demon that is my eating disorder. The hatred of my body, the nit-picking my own skin, the loud, loud part of my brain that was able to engage in starvation until my liver began shutting down, until intravenous liquid food became a necessity, until the darkness that lived in my brain fully and completely took over. I didn’t want to go back to that place, and most of the time, avoiding that darkness is relatively simple now that I’ve learned how. But sometimes, people and words and places can trigger those of us with mental health illnesses, which is why “trigger warnings” have recently become so popular, and so popular to hate.
At a recent poetry event I attended, a poet gave a trigger warning before reading a poem about her mother who committed suicide. The warning took no longer than a few seconds, but it could have save someone from bad memories, or from feeling pulled into a downward mental spiral. Trigger warnings are not, as some like to begrudgingly call them, “coddling,” though there is research to suggest they may not be effective either way.
The attitude that trigger warnings are “coddling” is akin to the attitude that mental health issues “aren’t real.” We don’t want or need to be coddled. We want and need affordable, accessible treatment. I wasn’t pushed into a dark mental space simply because I’m not capable of coping with food and diet talk. But I know my brain well enough to exit a situation that could possibly pull me back into that darkness. This isn’t weakness, it’s smart. The part of my brain that allowed me to starve isn’t weakness either, it’s sickness. I’m fortunate enough to be treating it well because I have a good job with good insurance and a workplace that allows me to leave in the middle of the day for a therapy session or to meet with my dietitian. But millions of people aren’t that lucky, and millions more live in fear of being stigmatized simply for admitting that they may have a problem. A culture that shames and stigmatizes mental health is a sick, backwards culture, not the other way around.
There are words like “acceptance” and “psychiatry” and “mental health advocacy” that make some people roll their eyes. But those words, to people like me, can be the difference between life and death, between years imprisoned in our brains or years of happiness and freedom. Mental health is still the elephant in too many rooms and at too many tables. The only way we’ll break the stigma is to talk about it more, normalize treatment, and build institutions truly dedicated to eradicating mental illness, with an enormous focus placed on prevention. There are people who may find these ideas “radical” or “unnecessary” but many more who may find them “life-changing.”