This post is a bit of a first for me – I don’t normally talk about big issues like this on social media, but this is not only a topic I think is important, but also one that is a very big deal to me.
Normally I don’t have any strong opinions on corporate run awareness days like today, Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk day, mostly cause I nurse a pretty healthy mistrust of big corporations and their motivations, but I think this initiative is a great thing. It’s really been a long time coming and it’s about time we started a bigger discussion on mental illness.
As usual, this post has the potential to turn into a novel. Being a psych student, I know more than the average person about mental illness. I could easily write a 10-page essay on the matter. But I won’t. Instead I want to talk about one of the biggest obstacles people with mental illness face: stigma.
The official definition of stigma is “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group have about something.” Synonyms for it include “shame” and “disgrace.” When talking specifically about mental illness, stigma has two levels: societal stigma, and self-stigma. This means that not only do mentally ill people have to deal with prejudices from other people, they also have to deal with the prejudices they have about themselves. Mentally ill people often have the same negative beliefs about their condition that outsiders do. For this reason, I think the first thing we as a society need to do to better help the thousands of people out there struggling with mental illness, is tackle stigma head on. Hence why I am a fan of Let’s Talk day, and the commercials they’ve put out there this year (http://youtu.be/qW2izYX54f0)
I have some personal experience with mental illness. I’m lucky enough to never have suffered it myself, but I’ve brushed up against it a few times now. I have a few friends who struggle with it. I’ve dated guys with it. I’ve seen how it affects people, and believe me, if you think it only affects the one person, you are very wrong. It’s like an unwelcome guest at a party; like a raincloud that follows you wherever you go. It may be invisible, but it’s very much present, and the havoc it wreaks is unmistakable.
While I am by no means an expert on them, I have the most experience with anxiety and depression. They are among the most common mental illnesses, so there’s a lot of literature on them. For those of you out there that aren’t very familiar with these conditions, let me explain how they work. They are, at their core, a disorder of thoughts. People with these conditions have developed negative patterns of thinking that have reached a point so severe they interfere with everyday functioning. Part of the root of this, is conditioning. Conditioning is, to put it simply, a way of modifying behaviour by reinforcing it. Conditioning is how we train animals to behave the way we want them to, and it’s one of the ways humans learn. It, however, can have bad consequences if taken too far. Phobias are one of the most extreme forms of anxiety and they are formed through negative reinforcement. Every time an individual encounters something fearful, they avoid it. In avoiding it, they instantly feel better, and that relief is what reinforces the behaviour. Phobias develop as people take this avoidance behaviour too far – they eventually come to avoid all situations that might put them in contact with their phobia. My grandma can’t even look at pictures of snakes – she’s that afraid of them.
This works the same way with anxiety and low mood. It gets to a point where the anxiety or low mood becomes so stressful that people very literally cannot handle it anymore. It becomes a vicious cycle of avoidance. In my experience, the most heartbreaking part is that people who suffer from this think it’s simply their weakness that put them in that position. They feel like they’re making excuses and that they should somehow manage to summon the strength to “get over it.”
The problem with this, though, is that regardless of what it may look like from the outside, this isn’t a problem that exists just in their heads. Both anxiety and depression go beyond thoughts and emotions – they have physical and biological components as well.
From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety is an evolved mechanism to help us stay alive. It makes us more alert to our surroundings and primes us to react quickly to possible threats. It’s a mechanism far beyond our conscious control – it’s very deeply ingrained. Ever heard of the flight or flight response? It’s the body’s response to a threat to our well-being. We must prepare either to fight for our lives, or run for our lives. The body prepares by increasing heart rate so that we have more oxygen coursing through our bodies, and increases our breathing rate for the same reason. It shuts down immune function and digestion so that all the body’s resources are put into fighting or fleeing. The problem is that normal stress triggers this reaction, albeit on a lower level. This has the effect of people running on high alertness for extended periods of time. Why do you think people get sick around exams? Because they’re stressed. People with anxiety are running on fight or flight mode ALL THE TIME. This is, without a doubt, physically exhausting, as well as mentally and emotionally exhausting.
Depression, on the other hand, has the opposite physical symptoms. Is that a surprise? Because it definitely has a very real, very measurable physical side. People with depression have less energy and more physical discomfort in general. They have trouble sleeping, which only prolongs the issue.
On top of the mental, emotional, and physical, there is also biology to contend with. The brain is basically a playground for chemical reactions and malfunctions with these are major contributors to mental illness. A big player in both anxiety and depression is the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for a whole host of things, among them sleep regulation, eating habits, and mood regulation. People with anxiety and depression have abnormal levels of serotonin. Medications prescribed for these two conditions target serotonin levels, among other things.
I cannot stress enough how incredibly complicated mental illness is. And there is no quick fix for it. It has so many layers that simply prescribing medication isn’t anywhere near an adequate solution. In fact, it may be more detrimental than anything else. I’ve had it described to me as being in a haze. The medication stops you from feeling bad, but it doesn’t let you feel good either. It holds you prisoner at a safe neutral. How are you supposed to enjoy life in a state like that? The most effective treatment for these two conditions is cognitive behavioural therapy, where the therapist helps the client address their negative thought patterns, regulate their emotions, and change their lifestyle in a way that helps them cope better.
Mental illness is a big issue, and a controversial one too. It affects all of us, and yet, there is still a lot of misunderstanding out there about it. It breaks my heart to know that for some of the people who have confided in me about struggling with these issues, I’m one of the few in their lives who tried to be understanding about it. And I am trying, even though I know most of it is beyond my scope of understanding. I’m trying really hard.
We NEED to talk more about this. So, even if it’s only for today, Let’s Talk.