You Don’t Know What Mental Illness Looks Like When It Matures

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I’ve been seeing a sentiment floating around a lot lately and it’s starting to get under my skin: mental illness is a health problem for young people. This isn’t strictly untrue: suicide is the second leading cause of death for 10-24 year olds. There are some studies that indicate depression rates are increasing in young adults. The problem is less about truth and more about scope: it’s easy to imagine that depression, anxiety, and other common mental health problems are things that many people deal with in young adulthood, but that we outgrow.

How often do you hear people discuss mental health in regards to adults over the age of 30? I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve heard one. It’s a young person’s problem in our collective consciousness. Perhaps even more acute in my mind is that even when we do talk about mental illness in adults, we talk about it as if they were still young. What does that mean? It means that many people don’t understand that if someone has had mental illness for their whole life, their relationship with it changes. Even if they still struggle, they learn new tools and gain understanding. It’s not the same as the first wave of depression that knocks you on your ass and leaves you wondering how you’ll ever stand again.

I don’t want to downplay how serious longterm mental illness can be, because I have lived with it for my entire adult life and boy howdy is it balls, but when you’re reaching year 10 or 20, the flavor is completely different and the support that you need is completely different. Most often when we hear about mental illness we hear about people who are flailing and helpless, people who act out through negative behaviors. We hear about attention seeking behavior, or sometimes manipulation. We often hear about people who don’t necessarily want to accept help or who don’t know what is helpful.

The image that many of us have is someone who lies around looking waifish and staring out windows mournfully. In some people’s minds you can SEE depression, like that silly black cloud that follows people around in antidepressant commercials. But it’s something your’e ashamed of that you hide because it’s embarrassing and you don’t understand it.

That’s an incredibly youthful experience of mental illness. It’s one that finds the experience unfamiliar and difficult to navigate. By the time you’ve reached even 25 or 30, if you have received any kind of treatment for your mental illness or found any kind of community, you likely feel some familiarity with your mental illness. It’s not unexpected. You can often predict certain patterns. More often than not I see adults with mental illness being very frank about their mental illness. They will say straight out “I get depressed in the winter,” rather than trying to dance around anything.

On the flip side, we often get much better at masking as we age. We’ve had to function with mental illness for long enough that we know how to keep going to our jobs and leaving the house even when we feel like death on the inside. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’ve got some skills and strategies that we know to pull out when things get bad.

Example: when I was younger and I started to feel like death, I wouldn’t know what to do and I’d often end up leaning into the feeling, lying in bed, writing emo poetry, and feeling worse. Now when I feel like death, I put on footie pajamas, get my weighted blanket, make a cup of tea, and play a video game. If that doesn’t work, I text a friend and talk through things. If that doesn’t work I make myself leave the house. If that doesn’t work I try to work out a little bit.

Perhaps most important, most of us become more self aware. I’ve seen a lot of 17 year olds post things they thought were semi-subtle social media posts indicating that they were suicidal. Looking back, there’s nothing subtle about them. Now most of the people my age either don’t post melodramatic statuses or they’re very matter of fact about it and include notes on how others could help or what they’re doing. It doesn’t feel nearly as romantic or interesting anymore. It’s about as exciting as sharing that you need someone to help you move (and just as enticing to all your friends).

The experience of living with mental illness over time doesn’t mean that you will always be better at dealing with it. But it does mean you understand it better, you feel more comfortable with it, and you’ve probably got more ideas of things to try to feel better. I would love to see more representation of the person who has grown comfortably into a mentally ill adult, who can make jokes about the fact that they immediately think they’re going to be fired if their boss goes into a closed door meeting (yes this is me), who has lists of people to call and skills to use, and who still is mentally ill. It’s completely different, but an experience that many people grow into over time.

I’d love to have more understanding that the blase attitude many of us have about our mental illness comes from living with it day in, day out, for years and years. It gets boring after a while. I am bored with being mentally ill. That is what it means to grow up with it.

The Real Violence of Mental Illness

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One year ago Niki died. You may not know Niki. I wish you had. She was loud, smart, thoughtful, funny, and very, very ill.

She was physically ill and mentally ill. She was the kind of mentally ill that makes people look away, or say “Oh, THAT kind?” She was the kind of mentally ill that people sweep under the rug. She was the kind of mentally ill that doesn’t get services and doesn’t get PSAs and doesn’t get sympathy. She was the kind of mentally ill that makes service providers label you “resistant to treatment” or even avoid giving you a diagnosis because there’s too much stigma.

She was the kind of mentally ill that people bring up after shootings. In fact she was the kind of mentally ill that people are starting to talk about right now, after this very shooting, to explain how someone could be so violent.

And one year ago Niki died.

Niki died because she was the kind of ill that doesn’t get noticed, that doesn’t get services, that doesn’t get support. She died because she could not access disability services. She died because no one wanted to recognize that the people most likely to be hurt by someone who is mentally ill is the person themself.

All of you want to talk about mental illness. Let’s talk about the real violence that is associated with mental illness. Let’s talk about how this society is saturated with ableist cruelty that enacts violence, pain, and suffering on the mentally ill every day and ends in deaths like Niki’s every day.

I see you all talking about how we need better mental health care now that your comfortable neurotypical lives have been disrupted. I see your silence when people die of suicide. I see the way you blame us. I see your silence when funding for our services is on the table, and I see your silence when we want to talk openly about our lives and our struggles. I see you calling us dramatic, mocking us for asking for trigger warnings, ignoring our calls for help and support. I see you ignoring mental health parity in health care legislation.

And I SEE YOU only bringing up mental health care now. Now, when you can blame us. Now, when you need a way to understand violence that says “it’s over there. it doesn’t belong to me. It’s people like them. I am not responsible”

You want to say that it’s people like Niki. People like me. People with personality disorders, or “severe mental illness.” We are the violent ones.

Well guess the fuck what? You have done so much violence to us. How dare you, how fucking dare you point your finger at one of the most vulnerable communities when there is no evidence to suggest that mass shootings are more likely to be perpetrated by the mentally ill? How fucking dare you continue the stigma that literally kills people like Niki, and go on to say that we are the violent ones?

I know that there will be some of you out there saying “wait, but I support mental healthcare!” Fucking great. What are you doing about it? What are you doing about it all of the days that our media is not exploding with news of a mass shooting? Are you calling and writing your legislator? Are you openly talking about mental illness, therapy, and services to break down the stigma? Are you talking about the fact that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and looking for solutions?

Are you protecting people like Niki? Are you actively fighting the violence that happens to mentally ill people each and every day?

Or do you only care when it’s people like you, “normal” people, neurotypical people, the ones that you deem worth it?

I see you, and I have no more patience.

Racism Is NOT A Mental Illness and It’s Damaging To Say It Is

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Fuck this this is shit in all the ways it is shit.

Ok, now that I’ve got that out of my system I still make no promises that I will not continue to call it shit over and over again. Because this is a steaming pile of garbage filth feces, and I am not about to censor myself on the way that mental illness gets thrown under the bus time and again to make other people feel good, safe, and normal. The lives of the mentally ill are always seen as less than, wrong, and bad. This kind of bullshit is why even liberals are willing to discriminate against disabled and mentally ill people. I apologize in advance if this is ranty and angry but it has every right to be because this video is senseless drivel, but it’s exactly the kind of senseless drivel that I see coming out of the mouths of people I expect better of.

DEFINITIONS

Let’s start with facts. The video posits that racism is a PTSD like mental health problem because racists exhibit irritability, aggression, and hostility. Let’s talk about what it takes for something to be a diagnosis in the DSM, and why we have diagnoses. First and foremost we have diagnoses so that people can receive treatment. A diagnosis is supposed to help providers understand how they can help someone. Now right off the bat, this video’s suggestion that racism is a mental health problem or that we should treat it as a mental health problem makes very little sense because hey guess what it turns out a. almost everyone has some racist tendencies and b. racists respond to different types of treatment. Some people just need to meet a black person they like, some people need to confront their own traumas and history, some people appear not to be open to any kind of change. There’s no one reason that people are racist or a best practice for interacting with them. These traits vary wildly among racists, and there doesn’t seem to be a higher rate or intensity of them in racists than in the general population (or even associated with instances of racism. People can be racist with a smile on their faces while thinking they’re being kind). So strike one on why we should approach it like a mental health issue.

“Irritability, aggression, hostility,” those are not enough to make up a mental health diagnosis, and NOT EVERY RACIST shows those traits. They would have to be exaggerated beyond all the rest of the population, impact a person’s day to day functioning, and be unique to racists in some way in order to quality as a mental health diagnosis

The other major problem with suggesting that racism is a mental health issue is that in order to be considered a diagnosis, the symptoms have to impair functioning in some major area of life (work, relationships, education, etc.). Now there are some extreme cases in which this happens, but overall racists are pretty functional in our society. In fact, it turns out that you can be openly, disgustingly racist and still get elected president. Our society is one embedded in racism, so the idea that being racist or doing racist things or having racist thoughts will make it hard for you to function is laughable. This is what we’ve been taught all our lives. It only makes sense. In my experience, actively fighting racism is far less functional in our society than accepting the basic racist premises that we grow up with.

There are some other smaller problems, like the fact that not all racist people show irritability, aggression, or hostility (have you seen a sweet racist Minnesotan mom? I have), so if those are supposedly the defining characteristics of “racism”, why aren’t they associated with all instances of racism?

WHY DO PEOPLE DO IT

So factually it doesn’t make tons of sense to assert that racism is a mental health issue because the traits are not out of line with the rest of the population, seen in all racist instances, and don’t impair day to day functioning. What could be motivating this impulse that so many (mostly white) people have to say that racism is a mental illness? What are the larger impacts of this assertion?

The video seems to assert that this label helps us address racism better, because we can use “exposure therapy” a la the therapy for phobias. I personally think it’s a REALLY BAD IDEA to suggest that. First, there’s already a lot of gross misunderstandings about how therapy works, and how exposure therapy in particular works, to the extent that random people will just expose someone to their triggers and call it therapy. Saying that on a society wide level we can engage in exposure therapy by protesting and talking about our past traumas propagates these misunderstandings and suggests that any rando can do therapy. Additionally I don’t see why we need to label racism a mental health problem in order to be willing to talk about it openly and face it head on. We can do that anyway.

The video also seems to suggest that viewing racism as a mental health problem will push people to be more accountable. It says “don’t let your racist friend or uncle off the hook. You wouldn’t abandon them if they had a mental illness.” Now I have to laugh at this because mentally ill people get abandoned all the fucking time so that’s a fucking shitty appeal to people’s decency. But this also implies that people are racist through no fault of their own and we should address racism to help the poor innocent racists. WHAT. THE. FUCK.

STOP CENTERING WHITE PEOPLE DEAR LORD JESUS. The reason not to let racists off the hook is because they are actively hurting people of color. If that’s not a good enough reason for you, then you might be a racist. That’s it. We don’t need to save racists, they’re doing perfectly fucking fine. The more we cater to their fee fees, the worse off we’ll be.

Racism doesn’t HAPPEN to white people. White people CAUSE racism because it benefits us. The end.

SPLASH DAMAGE

Ok ok, so beyond being wrong, what’s so bad about saying that racism is a mental illness? Maybe it can help us understand the phenomenon better or give us ways to approach and change the problem, even if it’s not wholly accurate.

Well in addition to not actually being super helpful, calling racism a mental health problem is seriously hurting a whole lot of people. You know, those people who are ACTUALLY mentally ill. If you label things you disagree with or find offensive “crazy” or “mental illness”, you are part of the stigmatization of mental illness. You’re part of ableism.

Cruelty and dehumanization are not the same as mental illness. People with every diagnosis out there are capable of fighting racism and being good people. When you say that something you find immoral is a mental illness, you are implying that mental illness means violence, means treating people poorly, mean violence, means anger, means hostility. Sure, there are people who are mentally ill who do all these things, but this is the kind of rhetoric that suggests every school shooter has autism or every murderer was just crazy. It takes away people’s responsibility (the video gets it completely wrong on that front. Racism is not a behavior like drunk driving, it’s a belief system and it’s one for which you are responsible), while also opening up the door to mistreat mentally ill people because they are violent and dangerous.

Stop blaming bad actions on mental illness. I don’t appreciate being thrown under the bus so that you can feel like you understand your shitty friends better. It’s complete shit to equate these learned, chosen behaviors with the different way my brain was born.

tldr: it’s not crazy to be racist in our society. It’s not a fluke that so many people in positions of power are racist, it’s part of the system. Calling it crazy only hurts the mentally ill. STOP IT.