As has always been the case, people find it hard to speak about mental illness, people find it uncomfortable. Because as much as people fear the paranormal due to its inexplicable nature, they fear mental illness to a similar degree if not dare I say, even more so. The reasons for this can be pulled back to centuries of ostracization, inhumane psychiatric treatments, the facilities available to patients in psychiatric care units and the way in which cinema depicts persons suffering from chronic mental illnesses as dangerous (to either themselves or to society) and unpredictable people.
This stigmatization can be pulled to so many films but a few good examples of this would be American Psycho, Psycho, Bates Motel, Silver Linings Playbook, American Beauty, Identity, Black Swan, The Double, Natural Born Killers, Full Metal Jacket, To the Bone, ‘Girl, Interrupted’, Melancholia, Shutter Island, 13 Reasons Why (I’m sorry but that franchise is really not ok) and Seven Psychopaths. Most of these films paint people with mental illness as sinister and or erratic beings, not to be trusted. These depictions aid in the de-humanization of people with mental illness. But it doesn’t simply stop there this marginalization is further perpetuated by the media as a result of the way in which they choose to report on mass homicides such as school shootings (here obviously the infamous Columbine comes to mind for most), suicide murders, suicide pacts, incels and suicides, with many of these stories driven by sensationalist reporting.
For the most part people with mental illness are not dangerous, are functioning members of society and live relatively normal lives. As access to better quality treatments are more readily available today after the absolute pharmaceutical boom that took place in the 90’s with giants such as Pfizer leading the revolution of drug solutions. And as the years progress, the treatments are supposedly improving. However, medication for mental health conditions are extremely expensive and when diagnosed with one of the more severe conditions it is often the case that even when you do have medical aid that your plan will refuse to cover your prescribed medication. As we do not have free health cover in South Africa, many people are left no option but to get medication from the state which more often than not, will not even be the correct script as clinics’ hands are tied due to only having access to a limited amount of medications.
Those with mental illness who have made an active decision to take care of their mental wellbeing in whichever way works for them and is accessible are compos mentis. They are not unfit to make their own choices. They are able to take on big tasks. They can excel at work or in school. Basically, a person with mental illness is able-bodied in every way. Yes, there are times that those with mental illness need to take some time away from the hate or happen to be sad, there is really nothing wrong with that. As mental health is so stigmatized it is exceptionally important to learn what are appropriate behaviours when it comes to mental health and interacting with someone who has a mental illness. You might think that this all seems really straight forward and that you know this already, but believe me I would not be writing this if I have not felt this judgment myself before. So, if you really want to be conscious of mental health and act as an ally to those who are suffering, please take note of these basic guidance steps:
- Refrain from using language such as “crazy”, “insane”, “loony bin”, “insane asylum” just asylum in general really, “psychotic”, “mania”, “deranged”- it’s pretty hurtful and not ok.
- Even at work, an employee does not have to disclose a mental illness to an employer (this is in fact law to protect those suffering from unfair and unlawful treatment).
- Do not ever comment to a friend or person suffering from mental illness that what they have is not really a condition but a lack of coping skills and that they need to find healthier ways of dealing with their problems. – Mental illness has to do with brain chemistry and has nothing whatsoever to do with your ability or inability to handle the difficulties of everyday life.
- Generally speaking, many people with mental health issues choose to be private about it because of the lack of understanding that exists, if you are aware that someone has mental health troubles, do not bring it up in conversations. It makes them/us uncomfortable.
- If you see someone taking pharmaceuticals to protect their mental wellbeing don’t throw your big dick energy by commenting on it. Let it be. Give us space to breathe.
- Someone’s mental health problems are not a topic for debate or gossip amongst your friendship group. It is something they must live with and manage every single day and a choice that they did not make themselves.
- Do not ever call anyone crazy.
- On that note, do not call womxn hysterical.
- Do not tell people with mental illness that their meds are bad for them and they should just sort out their problems naturally. You are probably not a healthcare professional (don’t get me wrong I don’t think there is something wrong with natural ways of dealing with mental health, just don’t give advice on it unless you are in fact trained in the field). It is a personal choice.
- Do not suggest ways that people with mental illness should deal with their feelings and problems unless you are a health care professional or you are dealing with these exact set of circumstances yourself.
- When someone with a mental illness decides to open up to you about their feelings, instead of saying something unintelligible, offensive or not true such as “I know how you feel”, or “you shouldn’t feel that way” just listen and be supportive.
- If you would like to develop a better understanding of what it is like living with mental illness in order to act as a support for a loved one or to improve your knowledge and awareness there are great avenues that you can learn from. First of all, there are support groups and reading material for just this that you can check out on SADAG. Secondly there is some dynamic cinema out there that captures mental illness in a more honest way such as Little Miss Sunshine, Maniac (both the original and the recent remake with Emma Stone and Jonah Hill), Its Kind of a Funny Story, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Donnie Darko, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (though I no longer really support Johnny Depp films), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Beginners and The Royal Tenenbaums, just to name a few, but there are so many treasures out there. The internet also has some good docs to follow as well as articles that are personal reflections from those suffering from mental illness.
- Anxiety is very real, do not undermine people’s experiences even if you can’t feel what they feel.
- It is not ok to disclose someone’s mental health condition to others without expressed consent and even when you do have it, it is advisable to keep this information to yourself.
- Do not judge someone for needing to take a break from life in which ever form they choose to do it, they probably know how to take better care of themselves than you do.
- It’s not ok to criticize someone for admittance to a mental health care facility. Do not treat them differently when they come back. Be proud of them for taking a step towards their own mental wellbeing.
- It’s not ok to comment on the amount of psychiatric drugs someone has to take on the daily, remember everyone is different. And also, it has nothing to do with you so stop being so nosy.
- When a friend with a mental health problem tells you that they are feeling too down to hang out with you, don’t be mad, be happy that they were brave enough to tell you the truth.
- Do not devalue someone’s sadness, sadness is important sometimes. However, be alert and look after your friends in a nurturing, uplifting way.
- Call out people who are perpetuating ignorant behaviours towards the struggles those with mental health problems are facing.
To keep up with more of my thoughts during mental health awareness month, follow my Instagram stories. Together we can break down the stigma. For all those suffering, remember though we sometimes feel alone we never truly are. Let’s build a community of support and upliftment by adjusting the vernacular, living more openly and sharing love and understanding.