One of the things I’ve noticed a lot of my line of work is how many people go about with untreated and unmanaged mental illness, simply because they’re ashamed of it.
Today we’re going to talk a little bit about the prevalence of mental illness. In fact, I’ve got a theory that every single person on the planet has got something going on. I firmly believe that reported or treated rates of mental health problems are a shadow of the truth – the tip of the iceberg.
After being trained in psychology for so many years now, these days I’m unlikely to meet a person who I can’t obviously see has something painful going on in their psychology, whether it’s depression and anxiety, chronic addictions and Personality Disorders, people-pleasing and narcissism. We all have something that usually goes unrecognized, unacknowledged, or ignored by the sufferer.
being human is an illness?
Most of the things that we call ‘mental illness’ are really nothing more than normal human emotions being poorly managed because of shame.
Something like anxiety is just a normal emotion, but if you’re taught that you’re not supposed to be anxious or that it’s wrong to be nervous, you’ll manage it poorly. You’ll suppress it, and that’s probably how conditions like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, agoraphobia or Social Anxiety Disorder develop.
When you’re struggling with cognitive issues – emotions or thoughts that you find difficult to manage – you’re going to feel really alone because it’ll seem like you’re the only one. What you don’t realize is you’re surrounded by other people also pretending that they’ve got nothing.
We feel alone because we’re all faking it.
In the past, I’ve had chronic social anxiety, generalized anxiety, various addictions, and massive waves of depression.
These days, I have huge periods of stress that are seemingly uncontrollable, and I have what’s called ‘hypersensitivity’, e.g. I can’t touch dirty stuff with my hands without cringing. And I’m still struggling with addictions – only instead of alcohol and cigarettes, I’ve graduated to sugar and Facebook.
So I’ve got my problems too. But do I feel ashamed of it? Not anymore. And if anybody mocks me or criticizes me for it I see them as the ones who are suffering, because no confident person in the world would criticize somebody with mental illness.
It’s not the illness, it’s our reaction to it
The main issue we have with the normal mental and emotional difficulties that come with being a human is that we fight against them. We struggle against the ‘symptoms’, and we do this right from the beginning by not even acknowledging, accepting or expressing that we’re having these problems.
That’s where the real journey of struggle begins – where the suffering comes from. Unfortunately, due to the current model of psychology being pathology based, we’re always looking at everything as a ‘disorder’ or ‘illness’ – a problem that needs to be fixed and medicated. (Not that there’s anything wrong with medication – I’m just pointing out we start with the assumption that’s something is wrong every time someone struggles cognitively).
Even the people who do openly admit to having conditions like anxiety, depression, OCD, and schizophrenia are still taught to deal with it by fighting it, fixing it, and suppressing it. We are told to treat everything like it’s a problem that needs to be fixed; like there’s something wrong with you.
I personally believe this view causes more suffering than if you were to welcome this thing.
How can everyone be wrong?
If everybody does struggle with mental issues at least some of the time, how can we call it an illness? If everybody has emotional difficulties, how can we say there’s something wrong with them?
Because if you think there’s something wrong with you, then there’s something wrong with everyone! Which by definition means nothing is wrong – it’s normal.
Just last night I watched a documentary on guys with Tourettes Syndrome (i.e. guys who uncontrollably curse and tic and yelp etc.). What I noticed is that the tics were louder and stronger and more compulsive when they were in situations where they felt ashamed of having Tourettes – situations where they felt a lot of pressure to not be like that i.e. social situations around people they’re not comfortable with.
What was really interesting is that their symptoms were aggravated the more they tried to suppress them. Conversely, when they’re alone or with people with they loved and trusted, the symptoms were very mild, especially when they weren’t feeling embarrassed by them.
But these guys treated their Tourettes like some sort of disease. They saw themselves as a person suffering from Tourette’s – two separate entities, like Smeagol and Gollum – and that is really the definition of shame. They were not embracing Tourettes, they were not loving it. They were treating it like a problem has to be fixed, or like a punishing disease that they’re stuck with, and because they treat it like that it becomes even worse and they suffer from it.
But do they need to suffer?
The struggle is pointless
Mental suffering really only occurs when we struggle against our cognitive problems and don’t figure out a way to make it work for us.
Now, before you get outraged, know that I worked in forensic mental health. I know that there are some really severe mental disorders and they have a huge negative impact on a person’s life. I’m not denying that.
All I’m saying is that the way we approach them and treat them is not the most helpful way available, especially with the amount of shame and stigma we put on them – to the point where people can’t even go to a GP or tell their friends that they’ve got something going on.
Pathology of the human condition
Depression can be manageable and even helpful if you’re fine with it. I still get waves of depression three or four times a year. I use it to do my best journaling. Some of the best art that you’ve ever seen and some of the best music you’ve ever heard is a direct result of major depression. If that’s what depression can be, then why do we always treat it like there’s something wrong?
Anxiety is a normal human emotion. If we can share it with others, we often connect with them well, like when two people meeting for the first time both admit that they feel nervous – suddenly they feel a lot closer together. Why do we need to automatically prioritise medicating such a potentially connecting emotion?
Even something more extreme – like schizophrenia or OCD – makes you an interesting person with a different perspective. It also opens up the possibility that maybe this is a higher functioning of the brain. If we stop treating it like an illness and start treating it more like a different sort of strength, we might be able to learn more about the human brain through the capabilities of those who are unique.
So many times of my work I’ve seen things like Asperger’s and ‘symptoms’ of being on the autistic spectrum correlate with massive talent and abilities. Aspergers people are often able to focus on details, to retain huge amounts of information, and to be able to see things the way other people can’t. Why are we talking about this as a ‘syndrome’?
Even something as painful as addiction – I mean, c’mon: who isn’t addicted to something? It might not be drugs – maybe it’s approval, maybe it’s chocolate, maybe it’s work, maybe it’s fitness, maybe it’s your crush – we’ve all got something we’re just a little bit too obsessed with. When you can admit that to other people you can feel a great connection with them. Some of the best connections I’ve ever seen were in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. At these places, people are being so open about their darkness and addiction that it creates the kind of relationships most of us can only dream of.
For decades, if not hundreds of years, we’ve viewed unique cognitive challenges as weaknesses and failures. If we’re going to start viewing these things as strengths, first we have to drop the shame about them.
We have to stop saying “There’s something wrong with me. There’s something wrong with you.” Because it’s just not true.
I’m calling you out. You’ve got something. Be it anxiety, stress, depression, weird thoughts that you can’t seem to control, obsessions, compulsions, visions that aren’t true, voices that nobody else can hear, behavioural tendencies that cause you troubles – we’ve all got something. And most of us are lying to people about it – you’re probably lying to yourself about it.
Now, you’ve got your reasons for lying. I understand those reasons. But if we can all step up at the same time and be bold about this thing, maybe we can create a transformation, and change the way that we see the thing that we call “mental illness.”
What if it’s a strength that we’re not utilising properly?
Fuck what people think
One of the reasons you’re scared to do be more open about it is because you think other people will mock you and give you shit about it. And yes, some of them will.
The weird thing is that you take those people seriously.
I want you to consider a very obvious truth: if someone is truly confident, with healthy psychology and good management of their emotions, would they be a bully? Would they mock people in pain? Would they lack compassion for fellow human beings? Would they lack empathy? Would they be mean, nasty, spiteful and controlling?
You’d have to be mentally fucked-up to be any of those things!
So anytime somebody’s mean to you about your so-called mental illness, all they’re saying is “Me too! I’ve got something! Please don’t call me out on it!” It’s obvious – so why do you take them seriously?
They’re the ones who need more help than you do, because at least you can admit it – they can’t. There’s no such thing as a psychologically healthy bully.
The only way someone can be cruel to another human being is if they have cognitive malfunctioning and emotional regulation issues. Anybody who gives you shit for being honest about the way your brain works have got even bigger problems than you do.
And if you’re one of those people who gives others crap about their problems – e.g. you tell people with depression that they just need to harden up or you tell people with anxiety that they’re pussies – I’m talking to you. Go see your GP because you got some serious problems.
Ultimately, the key to self-acceptance is understanding. You need to know yourself. You need to explore every aspect of yourself as truthfully and as bravely as you possibly can.
Find out what it is you got that makes you do that behaviour that’s so harmful. What creates those thoughts that hurt you come up? What makes those emotions that you can’t regulate flood through your body?
Find out why that happens – there’s a reason for it (and it mostly just because you’re a human being). Learn to understand your own psychology. Then, once you understand it, you share it with others. Once you’ve shared it with others, you start figuring out how to turn it into a strength. Once you can turn it into a strength – just like I’ve used my own mental problems to create this post – then true self-acceptance occurs, because you realize the truth:
There was never anything wrong with you.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. Please share it around, as there are a lot of people who you know need to hear this – they’re hiding in the shadows and suffering for no reason at all.
And if you’re one of those who are suffering – you’ve tried therapy and done everything you can but you want to start moving forward and turning this thing into a strength – get in touch email@example.com and we’ll talk about how to create massive self-acceptance by turning your ‘weaknesses’ into strengths.