Each year when the calendar turns many of us declare “resolutions” for the next 365 days and those resolutions most definitely derive from new understandings. Maybe that comes from a hard year of learning or maybe the deep breath of the holidays, but we often start the new year with a few thoughts on what we’d like to be different and steps to get us there.
In an effort to erode the stigma that haunts us still, I have a simple suggestion to help more of us understand people with a mental illness and change how we think about those who suffer in 2019: remember your own experiences.
Most of us have had our feet pulled out from under us with a sudden illness of someone we love or ourselves, the sudden loss of a job and the ability to pay the bills, or we have been overwhelmed by a huge task like a team to assemble or a wedding to plan. Most of us experience an acute physical, emotional, and mental shock during those times.
As we recollect how those experiences felt we cannot help but realize that people who suffer from a mental illness may experience these things on a regular basis and some fear they may live forever with their experience. The suffering of mental illnesses as felt by the individual is immense and cannot be compared to ‘daily life event’ type of suffering.
We need to be hopeful for those who suffer because often they aren’t.
Now compound that with illness, stigma and the memory of both
Now imagine how it feels to you, with this momentary disappointment that has occurred in your life. Comparing this suffering to the suffering of someone with a mental illness makes one realize how the significance of the suffering is multiplied many times over and compounded by the nature of the illness itself.
Though we can compare our hunger after having missed breakfast with the reality of how maybe somebody might feel when they’ve had no food, that comparison is not real. Because me missing breakfast could be a matter of choice, convenience, or just chance, knowing very well that I will be able to have lunch or perhaps supper but if I was going through circumstances in my life that subjected me to the hunger of a kind that has no hope of being satisfied due to my financial situation, my social situation, or, for that matter, the political situation of my environment, then this absolute hunger and the suffering that it leads to has no comparison to the hunger that I feel by missing my breakfast.
People need us to be hopeful for them
Even though we attempt to understand the suffering of mental illnesses by comparing it to emotions we might or might not feel in our daily lives, in reality, it’s a false equivalence as the suffering of mental illnesses is multifaceted and extends into the different aspects of our lives in a way that impacts our very existence. In that hour of need if I have no support; if the hand that is supposed to support me chooses to point fingers of blame and ridicule; if the eyes that are supposed to look at me with kindness look at me with bias and discrimination; and if the society that is supposed to give me a shoulder chooses to treat me with disdain and false judgements then what hope do I really have?
We need to understand, empathize, and be hopeful for the people in our lives who need us to be. And my wish for the New Year is for more Canadians and especially health care professionals to understand, empathize, and be hopeful for and kind to people who suffer from a mental illness so we can end the stigma and properly care for everyone who needs it.