Tackling the subject of mental illness is hard. You never know how it’s going to be received because there is still such a stigma attached to it. Despite advances in the medical field, despite the effort my church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, and especially Elder Holland (an apostle for the LDS church) has made, so many people still just don’t get it. So many people still refuse to accept that it’s real. But it is real. It is very real—as much as any other disease or illness. And it truly is an illness of oneness, loneliness. Discussion and dialogue on the subject is still limited because of the stigma, because people are stuck in an old-fashioned and close-minded way of thinking. No one has a problem talking about cancer, heart disease, diabetes or multiple sclerosis. So why should we have to stay quiet about depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia? We shouldn’t. We shouldn’t have to remain quiet, we shouldn’t have to suffer in silence and loneliness.
It’s not that I think mental illness or my struggle with depression, anxiety and OCD is worse than any other illness. But I do believe it’s more misunderstood, and that can make it feel lonelier.
“Do you exercise? Maybe you just need to exercise,” someone once told me. “I know exercising makes me feel better.”
Sure, exercise definitely helps. I’ve heard it helps people with Parkinson’s disease (check out The Michael J. Fox Foundation), but it doesn’t just take their illness away. It doesn’t take my illness away, either.
“Go for a walk. Be out in the sunshine. That’s all you need.” The husband of a friend of mine, who suffers from depression, said this. Again, these things can help, but they don’t “cure” mental illness.
Other examples of things people have told me or others I know are: “You just need to pray and read your scriptures more. Are you going to the temple? Well, I’m sure if you had more faith God would heal you.”
Of course there are always those kind of people who think this way about everything, but most of us know you don’t go tell a man who has cancer that if he just prayed or read his scriptures more, he would be healed. You don’t tell a woman with diabetes that if she simply had more faith or a stronger testimony her illness would disappear. Most of us understand that that just isn’t the way life works. Sometimes bad things happen to very good people, and sometimes it isn’t always in God’s plan for someone to be healed. And yet, those of us with mental illness hear those things all of the time.
Besides how ridiculous it is, it’s also incredibly judgmental. How can any of us know how much another person is praying or reading their scriptures? How can we know the level of someone’s testimony or how strong their faith is? We can’t. We don’t. And yet we continue to hear those words over and over again—like our illness is our own fault because we aren’t good enough people. And it’s so very lonely.
Struggling through any kind of illness or disease is difficult and all come with their own set of pain and trials. Yet time and time again, I’ve seen wards (an LDS congregation) rally around members with cancer or who have had surgery or have complications with their unborn child. There are ward fasts and sign up sheets filled with names of people eagerly willing to help out those in need. When has there ever been a ward fast for someone with mental illness? I’ve never seen a sign up sheet going around in relief society to bring in dinner for someone who is suffering from such extreme depression and anxiety they can barely get themselves out of bed in the morning—or can’t get themselves up at all. No one is signing up to watch the kids of someone who is bipolar on one of their deep dives into blackness. See, we’re just expected to carry on as usual, expected to do all the same things a normal, healthy person would do—but we’re not normal, and we’re not healthy. And it’s so lonely.
One thing I think many people don’t realize is that mental illness becomes physical. It isn’t just a battle in the mind. It’s a battle of the body as well. There have been days I was so depressed I became physically ill. There have been days when it has taken every ounce of strength to get myself up in the morning. Sure, everyone has those days now and again, but for those of us with mental illness it is our life. It’s what we go through all of the time. And it’s not because we aren’t trying, because we are trying as hard as we can. It’s the mental illness.
It can also be hard to get the help we need financially. Sometimes I struggle with the 5k runs and fundraisers people do to help with medical expenses for cancer patients. It’s not that I don’t think they need help or that I don’t want to help them. I know cancer treatment is very expensive, and it’s a terrible illness to have to suffer through. It’s just hard knowing that people like me will never have that financial support. Through the years there have been treatments I thought might help me with my depression—things like music therapy or equine therapy, but I couldn’t afford them because insurance didn’t cover those sorts of things. Even counseling sometimes has to be paid for completely out of pocket. And yet, you’ll never see a big fundraiser for someone with mental illness. No one would go. People would think it was a scam. We’re left to act like normal, healthy people without the help we need to try to be that way. And it’s so lonely.
Again, I’m not trying to say that my struggle with mental illness is worse than what anyone else goes through. I’m simply trying to show what it’s like to live with it every day, trying to explain how I feel about one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through—am still going through. It’s hard. And it’s lonely.
Through the years, I have had a couple of really good friends in whom I’ve been able to confide and who have been a great help and support to me. As I have slowly come to open up to others, some people turn away from me, judge me, never talk to me again, but I’ve also found that there are more people like me, more people with mental illness, than I ever thought. There’s just not enough communication going on about it when there should be. That’s what I’m doing, what I want to do. I want to open a discussion about what mental illness really is. I may not be able to change the world. We may not be able to change the world, but we can be there for each other and even if we get a few people to see the light, see the truth, then we’ve done something good.