I advocate a lot for the fact that mental illness I not always talking to oneself or screaming on a street corner. Mental illness is not always bellicose and volatile. That being said, there are mental illnesses that do present with unpredictable and, to the untrained eye, scary symptoms and yet most of the emphasis we see is on awareness for illnesses like depression and anxiety. Illnesses with “scary” symptoms often fall the wayside. It seems as though every other celebrity opening up about their mental health journey or campaign promoting understanding for a disorder advocates for anxiety and depression. Don’t get me wrong, this does not in any way invalidate those experiences and these disorders are painful and difficult to live with. However, as someone with less well known disorders, it makes me feel like my struggles are less palatable and too “crazy” to be discussed with compassion. And when it comes to illnesses with more socially impactful symptoms where someone might in fact be screaming on a street corner, they seem completely erased, taboo and sometimes vilified.
The “scary” side of mental illness is seldom talked about and when we encounter people who exhibit symptoms we do not understand, we turn a blind eye. We forget to find compassion for those who may make us feel uncomfortable or unsafe, while we proclaim our support for those with disorders that are trendier and that we can, to an extent, relate to better.
I’m talking about schizophrenia, illnesses with symptoms of psychosis, severe OCD, etc. These types of illnesses present with symptoms that can make it extremely difficult for people to function and interact in an effective manner. This brings on serious stigma as people internalize the idea that mental illnesses that are accompanied by more erratic or unpredictable behaviours mean someone is dangerous. This stigma creates a sense of “other” where these people are considered outside of what is “normal”; it makes it easy to dehumanize them and this often causes compassion and empathy to go out the window.
This is evident in the way these illnesses are managed during a crisis. These are often the types of illnesses that are aggravated by police response. Someone in a depressive state would rarely be considered a threat and one’s first impulse would be to provide support whereas someone talking to themselves or screaming incoherently would prompt many people to call 911, usually out of fear for their own safety as opposed to concern for the individual.
This reaction puts mentally ill people at unnecessary risk and often worsens their symptoms as they now have to contend with crisis intervention from people whose training is severely lacking in the mental health department and sometimes relies on aggression and assertiveness. People in a state where they have lost some or all touch with reality are vulnerable. They lack an understanding of the impacts their actions have on those around them and they lack an understanding of what the people around them want or expect from them and why. It is difficult to communicate with someone who is overcome by behaviours or thoughts that affect their cognitive functioning especially if we have no training and no experience in the matter.
Depression and anxiety are more socially acceptable in comparison. They are easier to wrap our heads around and people feel safer interacting with people with these illnesses. This is because everyone experiences sadness and stress. We experience symptoms of depression and anxiety on a smaller scale and can therefore relate to what these people are struggling with.
Mental health advocacy should hold space for everyone. Not just those with disorders that can be glamorized or romanticized. Not just those with disorders that we understand. Not just those disorders that we are comfortable being confronted with.
Mental illness can be scary. It can be overwhelming and difficult to understand. It is also painful and distressing for the person experiencing it. Next time you feel compassion for the person struggling with depression, remember that the person who startled you on public transit because they were talking to themselves deserves compassion as well. Remember that despite the fact that their behaviours may cause distress in others, they themselves are in distress as well.