Most people take it for granted that they will get up in the morning, shower, eat breakfast and take on the day. But what if you couldn’t get out of bed? Not because of any physical limitation, but because you just couldn’t force yourself into believing that it was worth it. Or, what if you managed to get up, but it takes you three hours to get ready to go anywhere because your brain forces you to perform rituals over and over again. It’s hard for most “normal” people to understand what it’s like to suffer from mental illness, but millions of people endure this kind of challenge every day of their lives.One in five Canadians will, at some point in their lives, suffer from a form of mental illness. That means that you or someone you know, a friend or a family member is or will be affected.
Unfortunately, the stigma attached to mental illness keeps many of those suffering from seeking help, even though mental illness is a real illness just like any other medical condition. If a loved one had diabetes you wouldn’t tell them that it’s all in their head and to get over it, you would take them to a clinic where they would be taught how to cope with the condition and, if necessary, get medication. The same needs to be done for those with mental illness.
There are many forms of mental illness, but the one with which I am most familiar is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). When you have a chronic illness in your family you become more familiar with it than most. Many people, when they hear the term OCD, think of a germaphobe who washes his hands constantly, but It is not as simple as that. Hand washing is only one of the compulsions with which the OCD sufferer may or may not be involved, there are many others which may include opening and closing doors, or turning on and off lights. Whatever it may be, the compulsion to repeat a specific action a certain number of times is preceded by persistent, unwanted, obsessive thoughts that trigger anxiety, leading to the compulsion. And it is not a matter of telling the OCD sufferer that it’s silly and to just stop it, they already know that it is illogical, but imbalances in their brain chemistry forces them to do it - imagine a skipping record.
At particularly tough times, when the OCD seems to be winning, the depression is enough to keep a person in bed all day. Concentration on everyday activities, when these other thoughts run through their mind all day, is not an easy thing. And the guilt of not being able to do the things expected of them negatively affects their self-worth. It is easy to see how it can make someone feel helpless and overwhelmingly sad and tired. Even thoughts of suicide are a possibility without help. But it can be treated. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication can help to control the symptoms, but rarely does it go away. It is not a cure, it is ongoing treatment and like insulin to the diabetic, it gives them the chance at a rewarding, happy life.
One of the major obstacles in the life of a person with mental illness is prejudice. We live in a society where many do not understand it, and ignorance of anything can lead to fear and ridicule. Placing a stigma on those with mental illness is no different than racism, homophobia or sexism. Once society understands that it is a legitimate illness, perspectives will change; as Oprah says, “When you know better, you do better.”
So, tomorrow morning, when you are out taking on the day, remember that not all disabilities can be seen and compassion toward everyone will go a long way.
*Mental Health week, May 1st-7th, 2011.*