Stop Making Excuses for Mental Illness
I think it’s pretty clear by now that I’m okay with talking about mental illness. I myself struggle with anxiety and occasionally depression, both of which I have been prone to since my youngest years. I have a regimen with my doctor now and we work together to find a solution for me. The solution often changes as the course of my life changes.
The interesting thing I have learned from having a mental illness is that people like to make excuses for me when I disclose my struggle. The conversation often goes like this:
Me: “Yeah, I have anxiety.”
Person: “Oh, I bet you’re just low on B12. I take this B complex I got from Wal-Mart and it picks me right up! Cures my own anxieties.”
Me: “Well, actually I was born with the propensity and then I was beaten, raped and held hostage by a raging psychopath for over 8 years.”
Person: *awkward pause*
Me: “But yeah I’m sure B Vitamin Complex will fix me right up.”
Why do we do this? Why is it when someone discloses something about themselves that is outside of our normal…do we make excuses for them? My guess is because we are uncomfortable with things that we are not familiar with. We get a majority of our knowledge from society, culture, friends, family and the general media, all of whom like to minimalize any kind of flaw an individual may have. We don’t talk about our struggles. We don’t talk about our epidemics unless they can be capitalized on by politicians. We are a nation of perfectionists lying to ourselves and those around us. To make things even stranger…we can all see right through it. If I ask you to name a person you know who could benefit from medication and counseling I bet someone immediately pops to mind, even if you won’t acknowledge their name.
I’m pretty straight forward about my opinion on this matter. And it gets awkward. And it causes divide and resentment. But let me tell you what else I have learned. Making excuses for someone who has a mental illness helps NO ONE but YOU. It makes YOU feel more comfortable all while sentencing the person you are excusing to a lifetime of illness. You are not allowing them the opportunity to get help, to feel better, to be better. Furthermore you have put up a wall that will either be used as a soundboard for the ramblings of the mentally ill, or, you make it clear they cannot talk to you about their struggle. If you take yourself out of the equation who else is affected by your decision to be unavailable? That person’s significant other? Their children? Their relationships with family and friends? Who else is suffering? Yeah. Seems like a pretty crappy thing to do now, isn’t it?
I’m not saying you need to confront the stranger on the street, or have a conversation with your workmate who obviously needs help. This is mostly targeted at people who will be in your life: friends and family.
What if the person refuses to believe they have a mental illness even though you’ve explained it to them a thousand different times? Well, that means that…THEY HAVE A MENTAL ILLNESS. This is especially true with people who have personality disorders. They do not acknowledge that their behavior is different because a person with mental illness doesn’t have the capacity to know they have an illness, therefore rendering them incapable of treating it themselves. It’s like telling a person with cancer that if they would just listen to you and get some counseling that their cancer would go away. No. Most mental illness is for life. It is not cured . It’s managed. And it cannot be managed without a direct conversation.
If you want someone with a mental illness to get help, then first: stop making excuses for their behavior. Stop covering up the truth. By lying about their condition you are shaming them for having it. And whose fault is that? Yours. Not theirs. Next: you have to make an ultimatum with an explanation. You have to take away something valuable that you provide in the relationship as a result of not getting help. It sounds like this:
“Listen, I need you to get help for your (name the behavior/condition). It is causing (insert how you feel and the effect it has on your relationship). If you do not get help I will (take away the important thing). I will know that you are not getting help if you continue to (repeat the behavior/condition that leads you to believe they have a mental illness).
Next: offer resources. Only research once. A common excuse for lack of mental health treatment is lack of desire for resources. Yes, maybe it costs money but it’s a part of maintaining your health. Yes, it may be inconvenient to your work schedule but that’s what LOA and ADA are for. Yes it will suck: mental illness sucks. There is no way around it. But it is what it is and there’s only one way to feel better. The final step is: don’t back out. A lack of commitment on your end devalues everything you just did. It tells the other person that this issue is not important.
Please, I’m begging you, no more excuses. They are selfish. If you care for this person then make a plan, offer help and stick to your guns. We are not a weak society because we suffer. We are empowered because we have knowledge. We have resources. And we are not afraid to be fragile.