I see some pretty damaged people sometimes in my line of work. Over the course of several years of teaching, I’ve moved from the public schools to working with Aboriginal students coming directly off Canadian reservations, where suicide rates are the highest in the world, the most frightening and horrific sorts of substance abuse are the norm, and even communities that number in the hundreds have multiple gangs. Then I moved into adult education in the downtown core of my city, and besides being slightly older and more ethnically diverse, my student population didn’t change much. Good, well-meaning people, with scary high incidence rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, depression, and dealing with problems that the middle class, by and large, doesn’t have to deal with.
But that’s a gross approximation, because I have a few students who have had every advantage that birth can give — stable middle-class homes, supportive parents, even decent academic ability — who have somehow ended up in the same mess as everyone else I work with. It’s no surprise when someone is born into poverty and alcoholism and follows in the footsteps of their parents. We know there’s an inter-generational cycle that is remarkably hard to break (though my students are making a real effort to do so). It’s puzzling, though, when someone has every apparent reason to be successful, but isn’t.
Not too long ago, John Scalzi wrote a piece about prejudice, entitled “Straight White Male is the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.” If life is a videogame, he explained, then having a visibly different ethnicity, gender identity, or orientation, makes everything in life harder. But if Scalzi has covered the whole spectrum of what it means to be a visible minority, that still leaves us with a myriad of invisible disadvantages that some people deal with. Like mental illness.
Anyone who’s ever spent considerable time in a hospital knows that when you don’t have your health, most everything else fades in importance. The worst I’ve had to deal with is a few days of flu, but I can extrapolate from there, and when I take the time to think about it, I’m very grateful for my general good health. But we don’t get mental illness in the same way. If you’ve never been depressed (I mean clinically depressed, not irritated or sad), never been crippled by anxiety, never felt overwhelmed by your emotions, it’s likely to not even occur to you that that happens to people.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that people haven’t heard of these things, but our bodies and brains are big bags of hormones and chemicals, and if you’ve hit the chemical jackpot, it’s pretty hard to empathize with someone who didn’t. We have healthy, stable emotions, self-confidence, the ability to weather life’s storms — or we don’t. There’s an implicit assumption, I think, that everyone experiences things, feels things, the same way that we do. We rationalize after the fact, thinking that getting over a difficult situation, or leaping over one of life’s hurdles, is simply a personal choice. But there’s an emotional substrate to everything we do that ultimately comes down to neurochemistry — not life experience, and not personal choice.
There are people I work with for whom anxiety is such a crippling affair, even very low-stress situations become impossible for them. It’s easy to say “get over it,” but that’s like telling a person in a wheelchair to get over it and walk already. There are people who become mired in depression and despair, and if you’ve never felt that way, you don’t know why they don’t just look on the bright side, maybe, or do something about their life to make it happier. But if they could do that, they wouldn’t be depressed. So many of the mentally ill end up on the street because of our ill-conceived beliefs about agency and choice.
It’s hard to get outside our own head, which is why I think mental illness is so little understood, despite awareness efforts from mental health advocates. Until I started spending day in and day out watching people attempt, without success, to change their brain chemistry by sheer force of will, I didn’t appreciate what I had. Life is easy for me because I was born with the right mix of chemicals. And not only do we ascribe a sort of guilt or laziness to those who lack such advantages, we even look down on those who proactively adjust their balance with prescription medication.
People living with a mental illness are already playing life on hard mode. We don’t need to make it harder.
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