“How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.”
David Foster Wallace
Has this ever happened to you: Someone you know urges you to try something, maybe a movie, tv show, musician, author, sport, restaurant, etc. in a way that makes it sound too good to pass up? So you go and try out whatever it is, but when you do, all you can muster is a bewildered, “huh?” and fail to see the appeal. Alternatively, did you ever have that one class in high school that seemed completely pointless and arbitrary? You know, the one that had nothing to do with anything important or interesting in life?
Hopefully I’ve covered everyone with at least one of those examples. After the initial surprise and disappointment, it’s inevitable to be left with a sense that no two people perceive the world in precisely the same way. After all, that “least favorite class” is different for everybody; it was history for me, but it was math for many of my friends. We can all see that it would have been ridiculous to try to insist that my preferences apply to everyone. I took my friends at their word that they found math useless, even though it seemed interesting to me. And yet, all too often, people insist on doubting the reality of others’ experience when it comes to mental illness.
May is “Mental Health Month,” which aims to “fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for equal care,” according to the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) website. You’ll notice the conspicuous absence of the typically ever-present word “awareness” in the name of the month. Nearly everyone has some idea about what mental illness is, but those ideas are often not accurate, which is what organizations such as NAMI and Mental Health America (MHA) are looking to change.
Often, stigma comes in the form of a failure to listen and believe what people with mental illness say. “Just get over it.” “Have you tried not being depressed?” “I get anxious, too, sometimes, but I just fight through it.” “You’re not depressed, you’re just lazy.” People really do say things like this. Lots of people, in fact. A couple of those are direct quotes I’ve heard directed at myself and others. I hope that this sounds as ridiculous as it would if I were to tell someone, “I know you don’t like football, you’re just pretending.” Yet, there may be some reason why mental health claims seem different to us.
Humans are social animals—very capable of empathy—but, at the same time, empathy comes with a necessary side-effect; we are constantly on the lookout for “cheaters” who malinger or lie in order to exploit the empathy of others. Some evolutionary biologists have convincingly argued that our internal “cheater-detector” runs independently of our reasoning skills – meaning that we make judgments about people’s honesty based on something we socially sense, not think (source: Van Lier, Revlin & De Neys). If this is the case, it becomes much harder to make rational decisions about people’s motives when there’s a potential that someone is a “cheater” or socially “off”. In this case, fighting stigma is more about overcoming a natural (and typically useful) bias – than it is about disagreeing with mean people.
Overcoming bias is a good goal to strive for, and MHA’s theme for this year’s Mental Health Month, “Life with a Mental Illness,” addresses this very issue. They have asked “individuals to share what life with a mental illness feels like for them in words, pictures, and video” on the Feels Like section of their website.
As I read the potential benefits of sharing, I couldn’t help but notice that I have an experience to share, myself.
Let’s go back, for a moment, to the situation I mentioned at the outset. You know, that thing that people seem to be really into that you don’t see the appeal of. Now try to imagine that every experience begins to feel this way. Think about the things in life that give you the most joy, fulfillment, and purpose, and imagine that they all become dull, disappointing, uninteresting, and unengaging. Motivation is obviously impossible when all possible alternatives feel internally equivalent. Concentrating on anything becomes just as difficult as it felt to study for your absolute worst-ever exam. This state of being is called anhedonia, a Greek word meaning literally “without pleasure.” I have a form of depression that makes life feel this way at times.
It used to be called dysthymia (though I’m glad it isn’t anymore, since I could never remember how to pronounce it) and it is fairly mild in terms of mental illnesses. For many people, clinical depression involves far more intense psychic pain than I ever hope to experience. Even so, I do appreciate when people take the time to believe my experience, and treat me accordingly. My college friends obligingly dragged me along to things that would bring my spirits up. My family affectionately refers to me as a “fuddy-duddy.” And my girlfriend patiently listens to my distressingly frequent existential crises. Small concessions such as these vastly improve the overall quality of my life, and it is entirely because people in my life are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, and take what I say seriously.
Since I have benefitted from the understanding of the people in my life, certainly the least I can do is provide the same consideration to others. I would recommend that you do the same. Take the time to read a few posts on the MHA Feels Like website. They are short, always insightful, sometimes sad, but often funny—or, at least, witty. It may offer you some insight to the inside of people that is frequently misunderstood. Frequently disrespected. I have my favorites, but I’ll let you decide which ones you like. After all, we probably won’t like all the same ones.
by Robert Baillargeon
Spurwink Link Coordinator