Unspoken Reality of Mental Illness

I grew up as a consumer in the mental health system. Because of this the majority of my friends, and acquaintances, are people who have also been affected by mental illness. The advantage to this is that I have a support system the size of a small army- I am surrounded by people who can relate to my struggles and provide hope.

My friends understand the personal significance of some of my successes that may seem minuscule to others outside my peer group. They also understand how meaningful feeling accepted and loved is when you are fighting the battle of a lifetime against yourself. I recall the huge hug I got when I braved wearing a tee shirt to the gym for the first time... I remember the time my friend rode his bicycle a long distance in the rain after donating blood because I was in the hospital, and had asked him for a coloring book.

The heartbreaking part about being close with many people who have been touched by fire is that sometimes they get very sick, sometimes they go missing, and sometimes they die. Illness and loss are an acknowledged reality within my social group, which is a group far too young to be burying their peers.

When someone your age loses their life, or their quality of life, to an illness that you share it starts an avalanche of unanswerable questions. The paradox surrounding this situation that runs through my head is something alone the lines of:

“This could’ve easily been me... What makes us so different that their life is gone, and mine is called inspirational?”

People throw around the word ‘strong’ a lot and I don’t really think it has much, if anything, to do with that. I don’t think my friends who have recovered are much different from the ones who will not get the chance, but the circumstances often are.

The most jarring example of this I’ve experienced was when I was taking a tour of a highly restricted unit and through the scratched plexiglass that separated the patients from the staff I saw a girl who I used to do public speaking with. We are close to the same age, we share some of the same diagnostic labels, we’d even been hospitalized at the same time on the same unit. But here I was standing on one side of the glass holding the Pentax 645 I’d gotten on a work trip to New York, and there she was pacing on the other side, too immersed in her own world to notice I was watching her.

It could’ve have so easily been the other way around. I believe the factors allowed me to turn in my visitors tag and leave the unit while she remained had little to do with effort, biology, or strength of character. I do believe that it had a lot to do with the amount of opportunities I’d been afforded as a result of coming from a relatively normal seeming middle class family that she had not received. I came from a family that was both committed to helping me and had the financial means to do so; she came from an addiction riddled home with fewer financial means or support. I was provided with expensive private school, therapy, and learning disability support; she remained in the overwhelmed public system. I have been given a higher amount of professional opportunities because I had the means to stay in school; she bounced between assistance and low wage jobs with little relevance to her interests or opportunity for growth.

I do not believe that recovery is dependent upon what you are given or where you come from; I do not believe that sickness is dependent upon a ‘sick’ brain. I do believe that the playing field is not level. I do believe that when we talk about mental health stigma, and when we talk about barriers to good treatment, we need to face up to the fact that there are other social injustices beyond mental health stigma that keep good people from from a having a real shot at recovery... injustices that keep my friends and peers out of work, on the streets, in the hospital, or worse.

We need to keep talking about ending mental health stigma, but we also need to talk about how we can make good treatment and support available to everyone who needs it, not just the lucky few. Regardless of class, race, background, sexuality, or diagnosis;  everybody deserves the opportunity to create a meaningful life.