Monday, September 2, 2013

Speaking up about perceptions of mental illness

I recently heard someone from a helping profession refer to depression as being a "selfish illness".  It was meant as an explanation as to why a depressed person in the conversation had taken actions to harm themselves that also affected a great number of other people.  The others in the conversation (all from the same kind of profession) either nodded their head in agreement or, like me, tacitly agreed by way of silence.

I was shocked by this at the time, as I expect that sort of comment from the general public but not from people who have training, knowledge, and firsthand experience with helping people who are struggling with issues that make them "different" from the status quo.  However, after a brief google search I realized that this is apparently a common perception, even from magazines that profess to educate the public about things like mental illness.

As someone who's had first, second, and thirdhand experiences with people who suffer from mental illnesses like depression, I can say that I have never known any of these individuals to be what we mean by the word "selfish".

Selfishness implies that someone behaves in a certain way for their own personal gain, regardless of the effect on others.  Is a mother who cancels her child's trip to the swimming pool "selfish" because she is in too much pain from her arthritis to leave the house?  Is a person with cancer "selfish" if they spend all day in bed and don't help their spouse with the laundry and groceries?  What about a colicky child who screams all night and "doesn't let" his parents sleep because he has severe pain in his tummy and can't communicate it?  Or someone with mononucleosis, who doesn't have the energy to respond to phone calls or emails from friends?

Extraordinary pain causes people to behave in often extra-ordinary ways in order to relieve the pain or discomfort. 

Imagine you had severe chest pain that was constant, non-stop, and completely undiagnosable.  Every medication the doctors gave you didn't work.  Every movement you made was excruciatingly painful, and you could no longer participate in your daily activities. Would you not try everything you could to relieve the pain? What if you couldn't communicate the source of the pain to others, or they didn't believe you, or the pain prevented you from leaving the house to seek treatment?  What if this severe pain went on for years and years, and seemed to have no end in sight?  Suddenly the option of suicide doesn't seem so completely illogical. 

Would someone that attempted to harm themselves in the above condition really be considered "selfish" by most people?  Confused, in distress, in obvious need of medical and societal attention, yes - but selfish?  If the intent is to get rid of immeasurable pain after you have (seemingly) exhausted every option, then the function of your behaviour isn't to "be selfish".  The function is simply to find a solution to your pain.

The extreme emotional distress experienced by individuals suffering from depression is an illness like any other.  It often requires medication to alleviate the symptoms.  We would NEVER think to interpret the relief-seeking behaviour of someone with cancer or arthritis as being "selfish"; why do we do so for depression?

While there has been some public education education about mental illnesses, I don't really believe it has been enough.  The Canadian Mental Health Association says that "20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime" and that ALMOST HALF of people who have suffered from depression have never gone to see a doctor about the problem.  In Canada, suicide is the leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds, and only one in 5 children who need mental health services actually receive them.

These are scary statistics.

I should have spoken out to that individual, for if even those in helping professions have this damaging assumption, we are a long way from a world where everyone with mental illness seeks helps without fear of shame.