Friday is World Mental Health Day and, like one in every five Americans, I am a veteran and survivor of mental illness.
It is important that I am not ashamed to say this. Once upon a time, I would have feared judgment or been embarrassed. Now I know better.
Why? Because if we are really going to try to destigmatize mental health care, like we all say on Facebook when a celebrity commits suicide, then we need to acknowledge that mental health is just as important —and ordinary — as physical health.
Physical ailments are not stigmatized (excluding certain ones linked to social behaviors) because we can see, touch and measure them. No one calls you crazy or tells you to snap out of it when you have chicken pox all over your face. Gunshot wound to the groin? There's a boot strap for that.
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Mental ailments are often greeted with platitudes because our society deals only in tangibles. People are uncomfortable at best and dangerously inept at worst in dealing with the invisible components of being alive, that complicated, interwoven and constantly shifting web of love, hate, disappointment, envy, joy, shame, and longing that ties and unties us to one another and ourselves.
That's part of what makes treating mental illness so challenging. Great strides have been made in the scientific understanding of the brain, and scientific proof is the leading factor in terms of changing society's perception of mental health.
But that is only half of the picture, the visible, empirical side, which is certainly important. Being able to boil everything down to chemicals in the brain and genetic hard- wiring is extremely helpful and convincing. If science and statistics are what it takes to destigmatize mental health care, then let's embrace that.
However, in my decade and a half of experience with cycles of depression, it takes more than clinical treatment to get better. It takes old-fashioned human kindness, gentleness, connection. It takes other people. And, as simplistic and sentimental and clichéd as it sounds, it takes love.
I learned this four years ago when certain life events, neglect of mental self-care, and what had been a manageable depression all swirled together to form a perfect storm that threatened to drown me. That is only partly a metaphor since drowning was part of my suicide fantasy. I never really wanted to die, but I wanted the pain to stop, and mostly, I was just very, very tired of the fight.
My lowest point was sitting at my kitchen table, which hadn't seen a proper meal in months, and reading the fine print of my life insurance policy. I was crushed to read that it would pay nothing for a suicide.
I'd had this fantasy that if my death would bring my family a decent sum of money, then my parting would somehow be noble, a win-win. It made sense in my depressed brain, though now I see how I was desperately clutching at straws for any palatable relief. Relief came slowly, but I did get better, finally.
I knew the science, but what really made me stay alive was a few people who actively loved me and let me know it. As much as depression makes you isolate yourself from others (for protection, which I understand), being meaningfully connected to other people is the greatest medicine.
I had one friend who used to come over and wash my dishes without judgement but in gentle solidarity. For someone in a major depressive episode, I can think of no more potent service than these practical kindnesses.
"It was in this spirit, and with this mode of love, that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek," Oscar Wilde wrote of a similar kindness he experienced as he was paraded shamefully through the streets on the way to prison.
Reaching out in kindness doesn't cost a thing. A silent nod of understanding is free. A short note of encouragement takes only three minutes to write. Wash the dishes. Go for a walk. Sit next to someone and watch stupid TV shows, whatever it takes to neutralize the protective instinct to isolate.
Let somebody whine. Have candid conversations about your own struggles. Be available. These are all things you can do today to make someone's life better.
Most stories about mental health care don't need to become as extreme as mine (which could have been worse) if we just admitted that caring for our hearts and minds was as ordinary a thing as getting our teeth cleaned.
And of course, part of that care certainly involves having more and better access to mental health professionals whose work is rooted in scientific data, but most importantly, we need to take care of one another.