Lately I’ve noticed people discard, devalue and abandon friends and family who suffer from depression or other mental illness.
I’ve heard, verbatim:“I can’t rescue her. It’s not my responsibility to save her.” “His wife is bipolar. She’s crazy.” “If she would just get a job and take care of herself.” “He’s draining our family.” “Everyone gets depressed—I don’t know why he can’t handle life” “He just needs to get over it. Life is beautiful.”
We treat people with mental illness as if it’s their destiny to suffer alone, to be on the streets or hidden away in institutions and Section 8 housing, to be the crazy friend or family pariah we avoid but will still amuse us at family gatherings.
We blame them. We stigmatize them. We attribute their condition to character and personality flaws.
We refuse to believe they have real diseases of the brain that affect every aspect of their lives.
Mental illness is real. It’s easier to comprehend if we call it a “brain disorder”—as suggested in the TED talk above . It’s just as real as cancer or other life threatening diseases and often more difficult to treat. People who survive most often attribute their recovery to the support of family and friends.
However, we’ve created convenient excuses and myths around mental illness (brain disorders) that enable us to turn away and abandon people we can help, which inevitably cause them more pain and trauma. We hide behind the virtue of self-reliance as an excuse for our inaction.
Consider what life is like for people struggling with brain disorders every day and often alone. Think about what alcohol does to your brain. Would you expect a drunk person to drive a car? We don’t say to the inebriated person, “Just get up, you can do it. It takes will power. Think positive.” We can be their strength and do it for them until they can do it for themselves. For instance, how can a mentally ill person determine the best course of action he or she should take to survive the disease? We can be a rational brain for them and help them navigate a daunting mental health system.
This issue reminds me of the wounded gazelle on the Serengeti, and the animals leaving her behind to die or be eaten. Survival of the Fittest. I have begun to think the instinct is so hardwired in our DNA that it takes super-humans doing everything within their power to resist it.
Don’t believe the myth that you can’t rescue them. Love and support of friends and family is usually the one thing that can. Reach out, don’t wait for them to call you. Dig deep for compassion and strength. Learn about the challenges of their particular brain disorder and how you can help. Listen. Be there. Try to give them love, comfort and safety. You might save a life.