Once again, mental health awareness is brought to the forefront of news outlets stemming from the Germanwings crash killing all 150 souls on board. It’s devastating. It’s surreal. It’s raises questions and it certainly has people talking about whether or not those dealing with mental health issues can function “normally” within society. What we know about co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, are that he was seeking treatment in order to cope with his mental health, that anti-depressants were prescribed to the young co-pilot, that there were suicidal tendencies even before he took the position in aviation. Still, facts are more or less how the public processes them and the debate becomes divided.
Mental health concerns have a wide spectrum to fall into. There is mild, moderate, and severe. I would say I firmly stand in between mild and moderate. The thing with situational depression is that it flares up whenever I’m stressed out or adjusting to a new situation. It can linger for a few weeks causing me to feel listless, foggy, exhausted, unmotivated, forgetful, etc. It can get in the way of my work routine, too. I can become defiant and avoid people or tasks which ultimately have me working on things at the last minute. The irony is that I actually work better under pressure, but that’s another story for a different post.
So when people talk about mental health and say things like, “They should have recognized it” or “It’s the doctor’s fault for knowing this man dealt with depression before” or “It’s the airline’s fault for letting him fly a plane”, my immediate reaction is to get defensive and then I step back and remember how mental health is still something people don’t like to talk about; therefore, it is a stigma in need of demystifying and even that isn’t enough at times.
Because mental illnesses evolve. It’s like being in remission and finding out a few months later your illness is back. You can go weeks or months or even years feeling fine until you don’t and this is where blame comes in.
The truth? Almost everyone involved can be at fault, including the person suffering from major mental illnesses.
I speak from a place of experience, of having friends and family members struggle with their mental health but in totally different ways. That being said, those of us struggling have one thing in common, no matter how extreme our own illness is:
We are the only ones who are responsible for getting us back on track.
Did you read that? Yes, We the Depressed and Bipolar and Paranoid Schizophrenic, etc. decide if we want to get better or not. We decide if we take our prescriptions or stick it out in therapy. We decide whether to self-medicate or change lifestyle habits. We make that judgment call no matter how many times you urge us to seek out the help of a professional or voice your concerns about our well being. We either envision ourselves as superior to a doctor’s knowledge or we think we can fix it on our own or we choose to ignore it or we grow tired of feeling so down about everything that we want help. I could stop taking my Prozac at any moment. I’ve actually adjusted my dosage before, taking less than what was initially prescribed by my psychiatrist, and I felt the effects almost immediately. When I went back to my psychiatrist and told him what I did, he didn’t criticize me or scold me. He simply asked, “How did you feel being on only half of the half I prescribed you?”
My short answer: “Brutally awful. I never want to feel how I felt before I came to you.”
The longer answer is we often find ourselves feeling invincible while taking medication. Over the course of time, we believe we can come off of medications because “we’re doing really well!” But the reason we are doing well is because we’re actively taking our prescribed dosage of anti-depressants while also making subtle lifestyle changes–cutting back on alcohol, exercising more, taking the time to tune into ourselves and really notice what our bodies are in need of. It’s perfectly normal to relapse when you battle mental illness because it is ongoing. It doesn’t clear up over several days like a cold. A good night’s rest won’t cure you because you’ll wake up wishing for more sleep if it’s gotten to that point. No, it is a daily choice we make to either feel good or feel, well, empty.
Blame also falls on family and doctors. It certainly goes without saying a strong support system is necessary to overcome mental illness. We must first feel supported by our loved ones when we make the decision to open up about our mental health. That part–that willingness to really listen to someone struggling–is crucial. We cannot fight this battle alone. So while I understand why some may argue it’s the fault of a family for not doing something about it, in some instances families may very well be aware of the situation but are afraid to address it perhaps out of shame or fear or denial or whatever else one feels. Blame does more harm than good, especially when we haven’t walked in that person’s shoes.
Growing up, my mom and dad were constantly asked, “What’s wrong with her? Why doesn’t smile? Why does she only go to certain people? You need to get her checked out. She’s such an odd child.” Thank GOD my mother has the will of steel and my dad resolved to letting my mom handle those situations where people would come up to her and tell her how to raise HER daughter. I am so fortunate to have a mother who knows I do everything in my own time, that I am hypersensitive to too much stimuli, that sometimes I just wanted playtime with friends to be over. She never pushed me to be anything I wasn’t. I enjoyed my make-believe world where I had everything I needed. And the part about only wanting to be held by certain people? My mom would flat out tell strangers, family members and friends, “She just doesn’t like you.” It was nothing anybody did or said that turned me the wrong way; I had just developed a heightened awareness of what I liked, what I was comfortable with, where I felt safe and with whom. Those people I only wanted to be with as a child has stayed relatively the same throughout my teenage and adult years.
So were my parents at fault for my depression? Did my family’s history with mental illness doom me from the start? Should my mom have forced me to be an outgoing, involved child? Or would you view it as compassion and really knowing your child? If I chose to ignore my doctor’s insistence on taking anti-depressants, would it be his fault or mine?
How we perceive mental health and “unstable” human beings is still very much shrouded in mystery by our own beliefs and interpretations. It’s a stigma I’ll continue to battle alongside many other intelligent and kind human beings because a handful of incidents corrals us into one category: unpredictable. And while our days may fluctuate between totally awesome and unbelievably horrible, one thing does remain concrete–we are all in control of our actions and decisions whether we know it or not.