What Even is Mental Illness?
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has reported that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. suffers from a mental illness. That translates to about 44 million people, but, what does that even mean? Mental illnesses can be broadly defined as a wide variety of conditions that affect mood, behavior, or thinking. Some hallmark mental illnesses include Anxiety, Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Schizophrenia. Mental illnesses can be brought about by inherited genetic traits, varying anomalies in brain chemistry, situational factors such as long-term exposure to stress or fear, and the like (Mayo Clinic, 2015). So, we know that mental illnesses affect millions of people, are medically diagnosable, and can even be fatal - in fact, Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), after accidents and homicide, yet by many, mental illness isn’t taken as seriously as ailments of other parts of the body. Why is this? It could be that we do indeed often have a great deal of control over our thoughts and actions, so for the 4 out of 5 that aren’t struggling with a mental illness, they might think “it’s all in your head, just stop worrying,” or “why are you so sad all of the time? Just be happy!” This is no more of an invalid argument as stating to someone with a broken limb, “walk, it’s just in your leg!”
In fact, for many sufferers of mental illness, they are able to control certain things or make certain decisions. Someone with a broken leg might be able to walk, however, it might be really hard and really painful, and there are varying degrees of pain or difficulty for different individuals. Someone with a hairline fracture might be able to walk or even do light exercise with a boot and a little physical therapy, while someone with a shattered bone will be almost completely unable to walk or get around at all without the help of doctors, friends, medicine, or even a wheelchair. This same method of understanding can be applied to mental illness. It takes many forms, degrees of severity, and areas of impact. It is important to remember that mental illness can stem from so many circumstances or factors, and therefore it can be defined or spoken about in black or white measures. Some people will need therapy for a short period of time to get through a rough hump, and some people may need life-long medical assistance to manage their mental illness, just as many need long-term or life-long help for chronic or persistent illnesses of other parts of the body. If you are suffering from a mental illness, remember that not reaching out for help is just as silly as not going to the doctor for a broken leg or wearing glasses if you have trouble seeing, and if someone you know is suffering from a mental illness, encourage them to address it and treat it. As always, be kind to yourself and others.