Mental illness is a real disease and should be treated like one

Keith Brumley

Keith Brumley

What’s wrong with you? Get out of bed! You think you’re better than everybody else? Get over it! It’s just an excuse. There’s nothing wrong with you! Stay away from him! She’s crazy! That guy is weird! Quit feeling sorry for yourself! It’s all in your mind.

This is what nearly every person suffering from mental illness has had to contend with, and it’s well past time to start thinking of it in a different way.

According to the Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health, mental disorders account for more than 15 percent of illness in the United States alone.

This is all disease and illness. Mental disorders can be as disabling as cancer, stroke or a spine injury. It’s second only to heart disease in the number of sufferers, and its sufferers total more than those with every form of cancer combined.

Still, many presume to pretend it doesn’t exist. Despite efforts from the National Institute of Mental Health, the World Health Organization, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance for Mental health, people suffering from mental illnesses are more prone to stigmatization than ever before.

Much of it has to do with fear. Many people carry preconceived – and mostly false – notions of what a mentally ill person is and how he/she behaves. Ironically, as our culture becomes more aware of mental health issues, the public has tended to equivocate mental illness with psychosis, and as we become more aware of how much violence pervades our society, those committing the violence are perceived as disturbed – and they should be.

Violence, however, and mental illness are not necessarily synonymous. Those suffering even from psychoses have little more possibility of committing an act of violence than your girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse. Acts of violence by those suffering from mental illness are less than the violence perpetrated on the mentally ill. So maybe those of us diagnosed as mentally ill aren’t so ill after all.

For me, they called it depression. It’s been a dragon, mutating and reincarnating every ten years since I was in my mid-twenties. Unchecked, it eats at the underbelly of my thoughts and emotions until I am thrown to a godless universe, hell bent on self-destruction. The glass is not half-empty. It’s completely drained. I take comfort, however, even at the most brutal moments when the pain is unbearable. In that, I am in good company.

Some of the world’s brightest minds and leaders suffered from mental disorders of some sort. Abraham Lincoln contended with depression throughout his life. Winston Churchill did, too. He called it his “black dog.” Psychologist and philosopher William James spent years with it and openly questioned whether life was worth living. Journalist Mike Wallace and writer Kurt Vonnegut barely survived it. It killed poet Sylvia Plath.

Its origins – like many cancers – are uncertain. What is known is that mental disorders are related to physical, cultural and bio/chemical changes. Stress is a trigger. Although we still live in a world that presumes the mind as being apart from the body, our brains work on the same principles as any other organ. It requires no less consideration than heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Mental illness is not in the mind, but rather the brain. It is real. It is also treatable. Since nearly two out of ten people reading this are presently struggling with a mental disorder, it is time to start paying attention to the well-being of yourself and others. There is no shame in that. In fact, it helps. To do otherwise is insane.