by Gillian Lawhead

Let’s talk.

It’s 2017. We live in a world where communication is quick and effortless. Where you can share thoughts and feelings with the click of the button. Whether it be texting, tweeting or posting, many of us have found our world (young people specifically) to rely on a technological, highly talkative, and expressive society. The problem with living in a world so heavily dependent on media is what information is widely shared versus topics that may be going unnoticed. Often the media as well as many Americans get caught up in those unimportant topics leaving us to neglect bigger issues that may be negatively impacting our world. What’s in the spotlight most of the time cannot compare to what people are facing in our world. Stories about death, life, inspiring people, or even simply “good” news aren’t as often discussed unless they are written by a college student for “The Odyssey” online (a platform for students and young people to create stories of whatever content matters to them that can be published and shared through their own social media). We live in a world where so much is said, and yet a multitude of important things are not acknowledged. Mental illness is one issue that is impacting so many but is rarely addressed or discussed in public conversations.

Mental illnesses range from anxiety to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder to depression, and even things such as eating disorders, substance abuse, and addiction. For those who may not suffer from mental illness, or know of someone who may be, it can be hard to recognize the severity or the reasoning behind it. Mental illness is so prevalent in our country and world, yet it is something no one is willing to talk about. If you suffer from mental illness, it may not always be the first thing you want someone to know about you. For those that may not directly feel the effects of mental illness, it can be uncomfortable to hear or discuss issues such as depression or eating disorders. Many people have become comfortable ignoring these issues as they simply are not the most pleasant to talk about. It’s as if we don’t feel the need to talk about our flaws nor do we want others to know of our imperfections. This stigma and treatment of mental illness must change. We succumb to mental illness conversations being silenced by our society, but people suffering with mental illness should not feel hopeless in their pursuit of help. It’s time to stand up for what matters and work towards supporting and helping our friends and our loved ones by lending an ear and having those tougher conversations about mental illnesses. There should be no reason not to acknowledge what makes someone who they are, even when those traits are different.

We engaged with multiple different stories of mental illness in class including the story of Elijah and his birth mother in Where Women are Kings. Elijah’s early years growing up with his mother Elizabeth consisted of a messy childhood as she struggled with hallucinations and psychological issues. Following the death of her husband, Elizabeth’s illness gets exponentially worse, leading to the taking away of her son. This story highlights the complications of both adoptions as well as effects of mental illness on those experiencing the psychological issues as well as those experiencing it secondhand. Mental illness is also considered in our reading of Bessie Head’s A Question of Power following the nightmares and hallucinations haunting our main character, Elizabeth. She is faced with her inner psychological chaos seeping into her everyday life, giving her story a uniqueness. In each of these stories we are exposed to what at the time is believed as different mental illnesses. A lot of times, these characters are referred to as “crazy” by those who fail to understand mental illness and unfortunately, this is how we often view people who think and act differently from ourselves (in terms of mental illness). This stigma could be avoided if conversations and discussions of mental illness were more widely accepted and open amongst our peers and the public today.

If we as Americans (even as humans) can get to a place where talking about hard things is normal and encouraged, maybe we could beat down stigmas, lift people up, and make a difference in the lives of our neighbors. To those affected by mental illness or being close to someone suffering – know that you can talk. Changing how we can talk about mental illness may seem a bit abstract and hard to address, however it’s important for everyone to understand. By supporting mental illness, others around us, and contributing to conversations of illness, we take the pressure off those who may in fact be suffering but find it difficult to ask for help.

Though it may seem like opening this conversation to the public will not change the future of acceptance of mental illness, talking about it is one of the best things we can do. Imagine how many things never get accomplished because they go unmentioned. Imagine being so afraid of what people will think that you begin to believe that no one is willing to listen or help. Now imagine a world where people are supportive of differences, acknowledging of unknown things, and most importantly accepting of each other. That is a world where mental illness can be both accepted and supported. If you search online for depression for example, most of what comes up are medical pages, diagnoses, and simple definitions. These platforms and brief articles do not give us much room to talk and simply goes to show that topics such as depression are very much strayed from when it comes to public conversation. I am not saying we can end mental illness (as it is a diagnosed illness), but what I am asking is that we work towards changing the stigma, supporting the differences, and talking about the help.

What can you do? Start talking! There are so many wonderful organizations dedicated to the discussion, support, and encouragement for those suffering and looking to learn more about mental illnesses. The following some insight to learning more and getting involved in your communities through conversation and support.

  • To Write Love on Her Arms is an organization built from the idea to believe that a better life is possible. They are a nonprofit dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for those struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. By responding to messages worldwide of people looking to talk, traveling all over to spread the word, sharing stories, and selling merchandise to raise money for treatment and recovery, TWLOHA is dedicated towards spreading hope and help that people deserve.
  • Bell let’s Talk is focused on ending the stigma around mental illness. They encourage you to learn more about mental illness, be kind, listen, ask, and talk. Originally based in Canada, this organization hold’s special “Bell Let’s Talk” days to encourage those conversations worldwide.
  • The Mighty is an online community working towards engaging people to learn more about not only mental illness, but also other disabilities and challenges we are facing. By publishing real stories of challenges by real people, the mighty creates a platform of learning. Their goal is to teach people that they aren’t the only ones with disability, and, were all doing this life together. And our illnesses, disabilities, or struggles are just as important to life as us rejoices. You can subscribe to The Mighty and get personalized emails about what you are interested in learning more about and reading about daily, weekly, or monthly.
  • Lastly is a local organization called National Alliance on Mental Illness (or NAMI). Specifically located and focused in the Southwestern area of Pennsylvania, NAMI is one of the nation’s largest mental health organizations dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. Covering 10 counties in the region, staff and volunteers work to raise awareness, provide support, educate and advocate for those living with mental illness. This organization holds plenty of local events and offers blogs, news, and volunteer opportunities to the local community.