It is time to destigmatize mental illness.
Mental illness is a sign of weakness. Mental illness is an excuse for criminality. Mental illness is not real. Mental illness is a sign of demon possession. Mental illness is a result of a spiritual disconnect. Mentally-ill people are unsafe and unpredictable attention seekers. Suicide is selfish. Suicide leads to eternal damnation and hellfire. Suicide is a cop out.
The greatest weapon I have ever faced is my own mind. Every day is a fight. At one point, I was willing to let it win. August 1, 2016 — that was going to be the date of my surrender. I grew up in the church, and whenever suicide was mentioned, the threat of going to Hell always followed. I had been battling depression for two years, and nearly three months ago, I was more than willing to risk the eternal home of my soul in order to obtain an escape. At least in Hell, I would be able to vocalize the agony I was feeling; I would not have to suffer in silence anymore. Shame silenced me for two years. Shame prevented me from asking for help. Shame is the reason my hands are shaking as I type these words.
My father is a pastor. With position comes pressure, and I have never been exempt from the high standards that have been placed on him. I have always felt the need to “have it all together,” so when I felt my sanity slipping through my hands, I became afraid.
Internalization of societal discrimination against those who suffer from mental illness is the main deterrent to seeking help. I would only hear mental illness brought up on two occasions — after mass shootings and when the Biblical story of the demon-possessed man was discussed.
The Criminalization of mental illness
It is unfair to equate mental illness with criminal behavior, especially considering that most mass shooters are only found to suffer from acute forms. Sixty-three percent of Americans surveyed by ABC News believe that mental illness is the number one cause of mass shootings. The connection between the two phenomena is minimal. In fact, people with moderate to severe mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.
It is easier to blame an issue as intricate as gun violence to general personal issues, such as mental illness than on more complex societal issues, such as media portrayal of violence, gun control laws, socioeconomic stress, and the breakdown of American families. However, this form of scapegoating is what leads to the stigmatization of mental illness.
Mental illness and the demon-possessed man
Mental illnesses, especially those that manifest in delusions and hallucinations, are attributed to demonization. The exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, as recorded in the Gospels, is usually related to mental illness, particularly because of the presence of self-harm. However, Biblical accounts of strange-acting people are mostly consistent with modern-day illnesses that are regularly diagnosed today, such as epilepsy, muteness, and blindness. None of these ailments are attributed to demon possession now – only mental illness. The brain is an organ that can malfunction, just like the heart, lungs, pancreas, or liver. Cranial abnormalities are not a sign of craziness or a lack of faith in God; it is simply a sign of sickness. Fortunately, treatments are now available to cure that sickness. Unfortunately, the stigma attached to mental illness prevents many people from seeking treatment, including me.
My Story: Suicidal thoughts became normal to me
It is time to destigmatize mental illness by humanizing mental illness.
Suicidal thoughts became normal to me. I had panic attacks daily. I was constantly exhausted. My mind was regularly overwhelmed with to-do lists, but I had no motivation to complete those tasks. I needed a break from myself. I have a reputation for being goofy, bubbly, and over the top, and that extroversion was the perfect disguise for the misery I fought every day. By the end of my senior year of high school, I could not even pretend to be okay anymore. I got up. I went to class. I went back to my room. I closed my black-out curtains. I went to sleep. I woke up the next day. I stopped eating regularly. I stopped socializing. I stopped living.
“It’s just a phase.”
“You’re fighting teenage hormones.”
“Stop being so dramatic.”
I eventually gave up on seeking help because of the responses I received. I was more afraid of being a disappointment than I was of ending my life.
The shame attached to seeking help for mental illness prevented me from openly discussing my struggles. Nobody took me seriously until I had used my knack for math and science to calculate the amount of ibuprofen necessary to cease my heartbeat. July 29, 2016. I had a doctor’s appointment, and a new regulation required every patient over the age of 11 to partake in a depression screening. Soon thereafter, I sat on a psychologist’s couch, genuinely afraid for my life, explaining my battle with depression. Since that day, with therapy, medication, and prayer, I have been fighting my diagnoses of severe depression and moderately severe anxiety. Every day becomes a little bit easier, but my fight is nowhere near complete.
My fight will not be over until suicide statistics are nonexistent and healthy conversations about mental illness abound.
My experience with mental illness is not evidence of a poor spiritual life. My triumph over mental illness is proof that a strong support system can help face the strongest battles, and the church is supposed to be the epitome of community.
“Never give up on someone with a mental illness. When ‘I’ is replaced by ‘we,’ illness becomes wellness.” — Shannon L. Adler
Read also: America, We Need To Have A Conversation About The Suicide Epidemic