April 2, 2023

The Impact of Mental Illness: It’s a Social Problem, Not an Individual One.

Every day most of us will see the impact of mental illness.

Depression. Anxiety. Addiction. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Behavioural issues. Suicide. Eating disorders. Bipolar. Borderline Personality Disorder. Schizophrenia. And the list goes on.

In our society we like to label and put people into nice, little boxes. A person presents with their symptoms and our medical system researches the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Our traditional treatments are medications and talk therapy. Helpful for some and of little to no benefit to others. Our system is not geared to get underneath what’s causing the mental illness, anguish, physical and emotional symptoms, but rather label and try and treat the symptoms rather than the cause. Today we are discovering more and more that the root cause of so much of our mental health suffering lies with trauma. It’s buried in our subconscious. We are starting to make strides with new modalities and therapies but not nearly enough. If our current system of treatment was working, we would not have a mental health crisis.

But this is not about our broken system and our inept way of labelling as a means of treatment. When in reality labelling oftentimes causes more stigma. And it’s not about our ignorance to trauma and belief systems that can and do affect so many of us. It’s about us as individuals who make up society. Doing better and being better.

The saying about “walking in another’s shoes” is so true. We never truly know what’s going on in someone’s life—in their head. And as much as we like to spout these lovely platitudes, the truth is many of us don’t actually try and understand what’s causing another pain. It makes us uncomfortable, or we are simply too busy with our own lives to take notice. Some of us still judge, thinking it’s their own fault they are struggling, or if they weren’t so “weak” they could get over it. Or we have the “tough love” mentality, which is “life’s tough, you’re not the only one suffering, so snap out of it.” We also like to compare whose struggles are worse from our own life experiences and perceptions. As evolving human beings, we can be so ignorant and lack any self-awareness.

Those who suffer addiction are seen as pathetic. It’s self-inflicted we like to say. People see it as a behavioural issue rather than an illness. Let’s be clear, people do not become addicted because they want to. They become addicted because they are trying to self-medicate. Self-soothe. Fill a void. Forget. Distract themselves from their pain. They are people in turmoil—people who do not know how to cope in a healthy way. Again, we try and treat the physical symptoms and we provide talk therapy, but how do they talk about the things they are not even aware of that are buried deep within? So many different addictions, affecting so many people. If it was simple to quit their addiction, we would not have the epidemic we have.

Many of us are faced with mental health struggles, either personally or by supporting a loved one, or maybe both. It’s a tough road, made tougher with the continued stigma, ignorance, and lack of understanding. Trying to navigate a broken mental health care system to find help is a nightmare. It’s just far too overwhelmed, under funded, steeped in the same treatments that we see time and time again are not improving care, not improving the overall knowledge of society, nor are they helping the individuals; if they were, we would not have so many people desperately suffering. We would not have so many family and friends in a constant state of concern about a loved one or frustrated by the lack of resources available. And the most ironic thing is we do actually have some great resources and modalities out there, but they are not recognised or supported in the same way as the mainstream therapies. It’s a pretty sad indictment given the state of the world’s mental health under the current system.

We continually hear about the mass shootings in the United States—so needless and tragic. And of course there’s always the war between those believing the right to bear arms and those who think there should be a gun amnesty. This article is not about guns, but I raise these shootings because a gun in the hand of a mentally stable person usually will not result in a mass shooting. When we have a huge mental health problem combined with the ability to access a firearm, we have a recipe for absolute disaster. This is another complete failure of the current mental health care system and a failure as society. Why? Because we are not addressing the root causes. We are not stopping bullying. We are not modelling healthy ways to cope. We are not listening. We are not teaching compassion and empathy as the core attribute for a healthy functioning human. We are not providing the right support.

Instead we are adults who tear each other down and openly bully, abuse, blame, or disrespect others. We are so often modelling all the wrong behaviours in front of our kids. Too many of us have not addressed our own issues, so our kids form their beliefs from our limited belief system. We seem to accept that bullying is normal behaviour, when the sad truth is, bullying stems from insecurities, trauma, unhappiness, and the need to belittle someone to feel better about ourselves. Constant bullying of a child is bound to have a huge impact on them, so perhaps we could start there? Addressing sh*t instead of ignoring it all. Modelling compassion, empathy, kindness, and teaching our kids to treat others with respect.

I have personally felt that dark hole of despair. The impending doom you feel from a panic attack. The inability to function properly. I have watched loved ones struggle and felt the fear of losing them to their battles. I have had friends lose children to suicide and friends who are in the terrifying throes of trying to support their suffering children or loved ones. And I tell you straight up, there is nothing more heartbreaking and frightening than watching that. Living it.

Witnessing it in a society that wants to care but really doesn’t care enough. That would rather be comfortable than hear someone’s discomfort. In schools that say they have a “no bullying policy,” yet bullying occurs regularly and nothing is done. In workplaces that say “speak up,” or “are you okay?” and when you do speak up and advise you are struggling, you find a lack of support or any real care. In the medical profession that is quick to label you and provide Band-Aid solutions at best. In families where the kids’ needs are not being met because the parents cannot meet their own needs. Where things get ignored or dismissed as they’re simply too hard to deal with. In friendship circles where it gets too difficult to “be there” for a struggling friend, so we distance ourselves—after all we want to have fun and not be brought down by a “Debbie Downer.”

As individuals do we care enough? Are we doing enough? As a society do we care enough? Are we doing enough? I think we know the answer to that.

As a Crisis Phone counsellor for a suicide prevention line, I can undoubtedly say we are in crisis. The people who call are in crisis, but it’s so much more than that. We as a society are in crisis. An individual is a product of their environment, and right now the environment is a clusterf*ck. It’s unhealthy. We need significant change. And it starts with ourselves and healing ourselves, and before I get pushback that not everyone needs to heal, I ask if people are happy, fulfilled, feeling good and whole, show compassion, kindness, and understanding and have no need to compare, belittle, or judge, why are there so many bitter and miserable people? Why are there so many people quick to throw shade at another? Mental illness and poor mental health is a symptom of our collective trauma and beliefs. It’s a symptom of an environment that has been festering for years because it’s not addressing the root causes. It’s a symptom of a society that has lost its way and values to the wrong priorities.

We have put greed, power, privilege, personal gain, performance, policy, and control over people. We measure the worth of people in all the wrong ways and then we wonder why everything is broken. We forget that as humans we are all different and have different needs. We forget that if we don’t raise our kids in a safe space where they are seen, heard, and feel validated, they will grow into insecure adults with their trauma manifesting in all sorts of unhealthy ways. We forget that if we stop and actually listen, we might hear what someone is really saying. And that if we create spaces for people to unpack their pain, they may actually be able to move forward. We forget that we are actually all equal, no matter our gender, our colour, our sexual orientation, our religion, our wealth, or anything else.

One of our biggest problems is we are taught that there is a weaker and stronger sex. That we must live by certain religious beliefs. That the colour of our skin somehow makes us better or worse. That the wealth of our family is akin to being a better person. All lies. And those lies are destroying us.

We don’t all need to be therapists, and this notion that if you have an issue you shouldn’t speak about it with anyone but a therapist is closed-minded and raises a question about our own ability to be caring humans. If you don’t have the capacity to listen and support a loved one or friend because you think it’s being negative, that really says far more about you than them. And if you can’t talk to your partner, friend, family about how you are truly feeling, there’s something to be addressed, because someone who loves and cares for you should be able to hear your pain and support you. Have we forgotten how to truly care?

If we are to improve the overall decline in our mental health we need all individuals to work together as a caring society. We need to support our loved ones, friends, and colleagues when they are struggling. We need to speak up and fight for better quality mental health care and not simply rely on the old ways, the old system, and treatments because they are clearly not working. We need to have a look at ourselves—are we open and understanding, or are we closed and judgemental? What work do we need to do to be more self-aware and compassionate? We need to ensure our kids all feel safe, seen, and heard—at home and at school.

People should never feel alone, yet every day there are people feeling so alone, so lost, so broken they are taking their own lives. This is not an individual problem, nor is it a family problem alone; it’s a society problem. When was the last time you asked someone, are you okay, and sat down prepared to truly listen to their answer? When was the last time you asked someone struggling, are you having thoughts of suicide? When was the last time you were really there for someone? It’s never easy but isn’t that our role as human beings?

“We can’t heal the world today but we can begin with a voice of compassion, a heart of love and an act of kindness.” ~ Mary Davis.

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