It’s Time to Address Mental Illness Culture

The stigma may be loosening, but we’re still divided when it comes to treating mental illness.

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” — Fred Rogers

Since before written history existed, people have tried to find answers for the behaviors and emotions of people experiencing serious mental and neurological episodes. Demonic possession, fairy spirits replacing children, the curse of a witch or soul stealing creature — what may truly have been cases of mood disorders or schizophrenia, epilepsy or autism were explained away by supernatural means. With the rise of philosophy, there was more effort to understand mania and visions as something other than spiritual; a common experience with roots in the body and brain. But only now, centuries later, are we finally beginning to understand how brain chemistry and environmental factors impact our mental health.

The more researchers discover, the more questions arise. We know migraines and bipolar disorder have connections to epilepsy, but not why. We understand schizophrenia is connected with a confusion of events, memory, and perception, but not the exact cause. We know many mental illnesses have both genetic and environmental influences, but we can’t predict how one person might grow up with depression while their sibling is mentally well.

Despite the lack of true knowing, we have more effective treatments than ever. Gone are the days of ice pick lobotomies and “therapies” that more closely resembled physical torture. The tragic events that led Rosemary Kennedy and many others to undergo a procedure that left them almost totally nonverbal and unable to care for themselves have led to drastic changes in the way we treat mental illnesses.

Now, commercials promote drugs that will balance your mood, bring back your happiness, help you sleep, and enable you to function again. Jokes about “happy pills” and “happy places” have worked their way into everyday humor (for better or worse), and many celebrities use their platforms to advocate for eliminating mental health stigma. You might say that mental health has become mainstream.

And that’s a good thing. It’s still taboo to seek help in some communities, but the stigma is slowly, steadily going away. People are talking and sharing and opening up in a way that has never been seen before.

But with this sharing of experiences a new complication has arrived: mental illness culture.

In the early 2000’s, my class of students just barely preceded what became known as emo and scene culture. We were the hangers on of 80s goth and punk culture, tempered by the dad shirts and baggy jeans of the 90s. But despite not being lobbed directly in with the unfortunate stereotypes that came with emo trends, we had an emerging fixation on mental illness that differed from previous generations. It was the beginning of what has now culminated in social media posters using hashtags like #actuallymentallyill and shaming people who preach good nutrition and exercise as valid therapies.

I fed into this toxic mentality for years. I joined a friend group in middle school that scoffed at positivity and optimism, proudly called myself a pessimist (because you can’t be disappointed if you expect the worst!) and made the active assumption that anyone who seemed happy couldn’t possibly understand my experience. I embraced my mood swings as my identity and doubted that therapy or medication could ever make a difference. This resistance to getting better was so intrinsic that when Pharrell Williams released his song, “Happy”, I hated it on a visceral, bitter level.

It sounds melodramatic, because it was. I hated positivity culture with a passion because I thought it presented a fundamental misunderstanding of how devastating mental illness could be. And sometimes that’s true —homeopaths who jump into comment threads to tell people that medication is poison and schizophrenia can be cured with kale juice may be well meaning, but they are indisputably wrong.

My anger towards those people was justified. I had spent years alternating between suicidal depression and sleepless mania, with a disorienting twist of severe dissociation. Kale and deep breathing weren’t going to fix me. But medication wasn’t the full answer either.

Scroll through mental illness forums and you’ll inevitably find people complaining that “I don’t need exercise, I need a medication to fix my chemical imbalance.” It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from extremist holistic gurus — medication is the only thing they need, the only cure, the only source of relief. Take a pill and let the serotonin begin.

As a technicality, not all “happy pills” have anything to do with serotonin. My drugs affect glutamate and dopamine, among other things. They’re neuroprotective, literally preventing brain damage caused by severe mood swings. Without them, I would have much more difficulty functioning in the world.

But the full truth is that I didn’t really start to get better until I made lifestyle changes on top of the meds. A little over a year ago I cut out sugar, started exercising, journaled for gratitude instead of just venting, and began seeing a therapist. I’m not going to push these choices as The Way to Get Better, because everyone is different. But the foundation of this progress was my movement away from mental illness culture and toward the mindset of “maybe it’s okay to be optimistic”.

I knew that my perspective had shifted when I heard “Happy” on the radio and didn’t hate it. In fact, I liked it. Previously, I would quickly hit skip or change the radio station because I just couldn’t stand how aggressively…happy it was. I didn’t want to clap my hands. I didn’t feel happy and I didn’t want to be told I should be happy. But after months of working toward changing my worldview, figuring out what worked for me personally, and dismantling years and years of toxic thought patterns that said I could never be like other people, I found myself singing along.

This was when I really started understanding the danger of glorifying mental illness. It’s natural to want a community of people with similar experiences. It’s healthy to be able to talk to someone who knows what you’re going through, because they’ve gone through it too. But when that conversation turns outward and begins criticizing people who take a different approach, whether that’s a healthy diet or meditation or posting feel-good quotes, it only serves to fuel the lie that people with mental illness are inherently different from everyone else. We see words like “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent”, the latter of which was originally intended to more positively represent people with autism, used to create a division between who is perceived as rightfully, truly sick, and who is perceived as well.

The truth is that mental illness impacts at least 1 in 4 people, and when you take into consideration experiences with trauma or grief or circumstantial depression, it’s likely even more. Chronic conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia may still be highly stigmatized and misunderstood, but cloistering ourselves in exclusive, anti-neurotypical communities and condemning people who want to get better is not the answer.

None of this is intended to accuse or put down anyone. Mental illness is a bitch. I spent the better part of my life with the mindset that other people just didn’t “get” it. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that the more I open up and speak about my own experiences, the more people who I’d thought were “neurotypical” actually had their own deep emotional wounds and struggles.

We’re no longer in a battle between mentally ill and mentally well. We understand more than ever that every person’s brain can experience trauma in different forms, and that everyone can become depressed or anxious. Seemingly healthy people can develop serious mental illnesses as they get older, and addiction is often thrown unfairly into a completely separate category from mental health.

It’s not a question of “us” versus “them”. If we’re ever going to shed light on the nuances of the human experience and find new ways of improving our well-being, we have to be open to talking about what hurts and why. And that means giving up the lie that people without mental illnesses can’t empathize with or understand those who live with them daily.

Talking about mental illness is difficult, so here’s a cute picture of some prairie dogs.

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