The statistics on mental illness in the U.S. are sobering. According to NAMI, one in five adults experience mental illness each year; for children, the prevalence is only slightly less at one in six. Anxiety and depression top the list of most common diagnoses and frequently occur together. Also troubling is the rising suicide rate. It is the second leading cause of death for those age 10 to 34 and is almost always preceeded by mental health issues. Let those numbers sink in for a few moments.
Consider the people you know and love and the likelihood that they are represented in one of these statistics. And then consider that these statistics represent just a small piece of an increasingly complex picture when it comes to all of the factors that influence our emotional and mental health and well-being.
Given the prevalence of mental illness, you’d think it would be a more frequent topic of conversation, similar to other common illnesses, like heart disease or diabetes. However, the reality is that mental illness is associated with significant stigma, the definition of which clearly conveys the inherent shame.
“Stigma: a mark of disgrace or discredit.”
Anti-stigma campaigns over the past two decades have sought to increase awareness and education around mental health issues, yet they have been largely unsuccessful. For many of us, the information we’re most likely to hear comes from media stories linking mental illnesses like depression to high-profile suicides or mass shooters. This only serves to heighten fear and justify distancing ourselves from those with diagnosed mental disorders. The people least likely to hold stigmatizing views? Those who have personal experience with mental illness–either their own or someone they’re close to.
As a girl, I felt the painful impact of this stigma because of my mom’s depression. When her distress was conspicuous in church, I noticed the whispers and looks directed our way, evidence of how shameful it was to be visibly unwell. When she remained shut in her room all day, I remember how scared and alone I felt. My dad only told us she wasn’t feeling well and we were not to bother her, but I felt so much of her pain that I would sit outside her door, offering anything I could think of to make her better. I needed someone to put words to what was happening and tell me it would be okay. No one did.
Being a highly sensitive child, my emotions and my mom’s became twisted together inside me, and my anxiety was literally making me sick. As a result, I was referred to a child psychologist myself. When I had to leave school for counseling appointments, I felt ashamed and used the excuse of a dental visit, as my mom suggested, so no one would know.
Standing in my kitchen years later, I felt overwhelmed and isolated. I bore a constant weight and sadness that I couldn’t shake. Cautiously, I shared a little of what I’d been feeling during a phone call with my mom. Her response? “Well, you know, you are predisposed to depression.” She said a bunch of other things, probably something about chemical imbalances and medication, but I’d stopped listening. The word “depression” echoed loudly in my head, and my body felt the sensations of shame it still held from those days bearing witness to my mom’s suffering–suffering that enfolded all of us in the absence of restorative care.
Somehow, I managed to pull myself together enough to stave off the looming depression for another few years–fear and shame are powerful motivators. Influenced by religious culture that pointed to Jesus as the answer to everything, I prayed harder, posted Scripture verses everywhere, and begged God to heal me. Did I need God? Yes, unquestionably. Did I need something else too? Yes, absolutely.
I needed others to help me make sense of what I was feeling.
I needed others to provide a safe place for naming and healing unresolved trauma; to normalize what I was experiencing and offer options for care; and to allow me to feel sad and hopeless some days without telling me it was all in my head or that I didn’t have enough faith. I needed others to come close.
The people around you and me–the one in five, the one in six–need us to come close too. Close enough to listen with compassion and see not disgrace, but another human, just like you and me. Now that would be a powerful anti-stigma campaign.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris, and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.