Personal Essay: Let’s Talk Mental Health

by Anya White

The narrative and how we talk about mental illness must change.

The phrase, ‘mental illness,’ itself conjures up images of tedious therapist visits, psychiatric wards,and medication. It is a phrase still considered taboo in today’s mainstream society. 

But why? Why is there such a negative connotation surrounding something that is

hereditary, uncontrollable by the individual, and involuntary? Why are atypical people treated

with discrimination when compared to neurotypical people? Why is there such a large gap in the

understanding of mental illness?

Many mental illnesses, such as anxiety, come with a negative connatation surrounding it that implies that those people afflicted with this particular subset of mental illnesses are incompetent or incapable at holding jobs or performing day to day tasks which is entirely untrue. This is why we must actively work towards changing the narrative and the language surrounding mental health disorders.

Anxiety can feel like being underwater and attempting to inhale while your lungs fill with fluid. You grow panicked, wide-eyed, looking for an escape. There is none. You are trapped and you

know it, you are certain that you will die alone in this great big pool of fear. 

This is what it feels like to have a panic attack. The feeling of hopelessness that envelops you is like no other, and you are certain that death is near. 

We could talk about how panic attacks are caused by a spike in adrenaline. The discussion could be how it is an emotional response elicited by a chemical stimulus or incorrectly wired neural pathways.  Instead, the conversation about anxiety often takes a different turn.

In too many cases, anxiety is thought to be nothing more than attention-seeking behavior. This is entirely untrue. To correct this, we must change the narrative on the perception of anxiety and panic disorders. 

Few would seek out the social deviant title, but that unfortunate label is slapped carelessly upon those who suffer from this debilitating mental illness. Anxiety and panic attacks are never an individual’s fault or moral failing. It all comes down to brain chemistry, not personal defect.

Blame the release of chemicals, blame the neural pathways that are wired towards panic, blame the chemistry and inner working of the brain. Do not blame the person. 

It is not their wish to have this hanging over them, but rather they are stuck with it. It is

not their desire to be singled out as the “anxious kid.” No, no one wants to be stuck with a

demeaning nickname that focuses on one aspect of their personality and excludes everything else about them. 

This is why we must change the narrative.

Has the sun been extinguished, or have the lights just been turned off? Have I been asleep

or rather lost in my thoughts for hours, staring at my unchanging ceiling? Are these lines on my

arm from my sheets on my bed, or the razor blade resting beside my bedside table? These questions are often found by people who experience depression. 

The losing track of time, the disassociating for hours at a time, the did-I-eat-at-all-today kind of depression. 

This kind of depression is an all-consuming feeling of absolute nothingness that can be easy to slip in and out of. The kind of feeling that is all consuming.

Raw and unfiltered, depression can be like the pile of clothes that consume the bedroom floor until you are swimming in a sea of blouses, sweaters, and odd skirts that have yet to be worn. The resulting apathy is just one of the things that can accompany such a depression.

Approaching the condition logically, the discussion could be on the lack of chemicals in the brain or the neural pathways formed during childhood trauma. 

Instead, people with depression often find their condition met with emotional responses that portrays the person as pity.

They are ‘depressed.’ 

Commenting on depression in this way does not separate an individual from their condition. It makes the person the personification of an illness rather than identifying them as someone with a condition that needs treatment.

This classification that happens eliminates the multitude of other characteristics that make a person an individual. This person might enjoy mint tea, tending to their garden or any other number of things and they also might also have depression. 

This is why we need to differentiate between the person and the disorder, so people do not get the mistaken impression that they are one in the same.

We must erase the stigma that divides the atypical from the neurotypical. We must ensure that equal opportunities are provided to our brothers and sisters suffering from mental illness. 

How do we accomplish this paradigm shift?

It starts with the individual.

Changing the way we speak about something changes how we see it. 

Your cousin is not depressed; your cousin has depression. 

Your aunt is not panicky; she has a panic disorder.

If each of us were to apply this concept in everyday conversation it would gradually gain momentum, and allow the mentally ill community to be more comfortable in their own skin knowing others are not defining them by one characteristic they happen to possess. 

This is how we make a change.

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