By Karly Silling
I’ve seen and experienced the many ways mental illness has snaked its way through my family history.
It’s looked like a lot of things: drug use, alcoholism, overeating, undereating, moodiness, withdrawal from life… But it all comes down to the same thing—mental illness.
I’ve made distraught phone calls full of sobbing to a parent. I’ve received quiet phone calls with too few words from a parent. I’ve spent nights crying until sleep comes, and nights not sleeping at all. I’ve feared for the life of a family member. I’ve overheard vague mentions of distant relatives who’ve been in institutions, who’ve died of alcoholism, who’ve ‘whatevered’ long ago in the past. Mostly, the scar of mental illness on my family has been in the shape of a big question mark surrounded by shame and withdrawal.
But for me, it’s also been an answer.
I’m one of the first in my family to benefit from where medical science and reduced social stigma have gotten us today. I’ve experienced better medical care for my mental illness, and have access to much better medications than existed even when I was first diagnosed 15 years ago.
I don’t know how many people I know have a mental illness, but I strongly suspect that at least half of my close friends do. Many of them are far more interesting and beautiful and sensitive and kind because of it. Whatever mental illnesses, it’s not a weakness. It’s not something to be ashamed of.
Even so, I still feel afraid of being judged when I admit my depression at my maternity appointments, like a history of depression is going to make me somehow less fit to be a mom.
I don’t feel like it will. I don’t believe it at all. In fact, I think my deep intensity is going to make me a better mom. Kids have big, unwieldy emotions that they don’t know what to do with, and that’s been my experience for most of my life. I have tools—I’ve developed my own, and I can share them.
On the verge of becoming a mom for the first time, I’m thinking a lot about what I want for my kids. I want them to live in a world where big emotions are just part of who they are. Like being tall, or bad with numbers and good with words. A world where they don’t have to hide their feelings or be ashamed of them. Where they don’t have to suffer with their emotions all caught up and tangled inside, festering for so long that they turn into something dark and ugly.
And if one of my kids should have a much more debilitating mental illness than what I’ve lived with, I want them to still have the kind of access and opportunities that I’ve had. And I want that for every child in the world.
I live in a privileged little bubble, I know that. Which is why there’s still so much work to be done, and why it’s important to keep talking about it. Because you’re never healed from a mental illness, there’s no cure. But there is treatment, and there’s learning to love that part of yourself, to accept it, to see it for the gifts that it brings.
Tomorrow, Saturday the 10th of October, is World Mental Health Day. The theme for this year feels timely and essential: Mental Health for All: Greater Investment – Greater Access. It’s not been so long that we’ve had the kinds of tools we have today to help treat mental illness, and the reality is that many people are suffering with restricted access—or no access—to help.
In many Western countries, BIPOC communities suffer more harshly from the effects of mental illness than white people. Discrimination, systematic oppression, and racism are major contributors that can impede access to health services, while social stigma towards mental illness remains strong in many of these communities.
“[A]ccording to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, adult Black/African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult Whites. Despite this, African Americans are less likely than Whites to seek out treatment and more likely to end treatment prematurely.”Source: The National Council for Behavioral Health
The problem of access to proper mental health care is a global one. According to the WHO, one in four people worldwide will be affected by a mental disorder in their lives—and every 40 seconds, someone dies by suicide.
So while I count my experience with treating my mental illness as a positive one, many people around the world have not been so lucky. What can we do? Talk about it. Share your story, if you have one, and listen to the stories of others.
Reach out to the people around you, and advocate for better access to mental health services in your community.
And most of all, be kind. For a person in the middle of a dark time, a single act of kindness can make all the difference.
If you want to share your story, please reach out to us here at The Three or email us at thethreemag @ gmail dot com—we’d love to hear what you have to say.