In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, here are a few things I’ve learned since I first had contact with the mental health system when I was 8 years old.
1.Conventional ‘treatments’ often don’t work for many of us and in fact, do more harm than good. Conversely, these treatments can also help some folks. When people are hurt by conventional treatments, they are often gaslit and disbelieved.
2. The system forgets to look at the situational circumstances that often surround someone who is in distress. Some examples are systemic oppression due to a marginalized identity, financial difficulties and inequities, lack of competent health care, chronic pain/illness and so much more. Instead, we are labeled with a diagnosis and given meds or treatments that often do nothing to help us address some of these outside circumstances that are contributing to our great distress.
3. Our society is deeply uncomfortable with strong emotions. People avoid you if you share strong emotions and some of us grow up hearing we are ‘too sensitive’, ‘too much’, ‘too intense’ or even, that we ‘expect too much’. These messages make us feel ‘other’, alone and often keep us from reaching out to others in any capacity because we see ourselves as deeply flawed.
4. Sometimes treatments like mental hospitals and medical responses to suicidal thinking teach us we can never be authentic in the system. When we have suicidal thoughts, we keep them to ourselves because the systemic response to these thoughts can be scary and harmful. Mental hospitals for folks who have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide are often traumatic and do more harm than good.
5. If you have mental health diagnoses in your medical records, your concerns are often dismissed with life-threatening consequences. This dismissal and lack of treatment can make one feel even more hopeless. At worse, it can literally kill people whose symptoms are dismissed and later turn out to be a terminal condition.
6. Many of us have divergent brains in a world that values compliance and productivity. Some of us may not deal with the typical work world well, but instead of alternative work environments being offered, we end up homeless or financially bankrupt due to trying to fit in and not being able to. Unfortunately, if we cannot work in regular ‘productive’ ways and we apply for disability benefits that are related to our divergent brains, we have to comply with traditional treatments that may not work for us and ‘diagnoses’ that may not really fit who we are.
7. The system encourages us to cement our identity as a ‘mental patient’ or ‘mentally ill person’. The system often tells us we cannot work, we cannot be in a relationship, we cannot give back, and that we are helpless individuals permanently reliant on a system that perpetuates this helplessness. This leads to more despair, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts.
8. Amidst all of this turmoil, disconnection, and the overemphasis on compliance and productivity, it is hard to find ways to soothe ourselves, to find meaning. We are often discouraged from sharing emotions when we are children and are not taught outlets/coping tools to work with emotions. Instead, we are shown that distraction is the key coping tool in our society. We learn to not reach out for help with big emotions because our caregivers are scared of them as well. We learn to distract ourselves from scary emotions with substances, food, TV, games, smartphones, and social media. This distraction and suppression of our emotions keep us emotionally stunted, disconnected, and numb.
9. People in this world are so tired and burned out from all the mind-numbing conditions of our capitalist society that we don’t reach out to each other. We don’t check in on our friends. We don’t nurture friendships. We don’t value sharing our joys and hardships with our friends. We place far too much of this sharing on romantic relationships. We forget how to connect with each other. This lack of connection amplifies mental distress so much so that many of us start to feel that life has little meaning and the more we feel this way, the less able we are to reach out to people. It is a vicious circle of despair and isolation that ALL of us experience.
10. We are human. We all have big emotions. Some of us may be more sensitive to our environments than others. Some of us may have a more difficult time complying and producing in our society, but that doesn’t make us more ‘sick’ or ‘ill’ than anyone else. We need to connect and support one another in all ways and stop referring folks we are scared of to ‘professional help’ and instead, learn and grow together with them.
11. Finally, sometimes little things like nature, dogs, music, and books keep us alive. We need to learn to hold on to these little things and not let go. We need to reach out. And hope that through small and big connections, we will find clans of humans who support us, give us hope, help us find inspiration, and keep us here.