It’s a popular internet meme. You post a picture of somebody looking shocked with the text “That awkward moment” over it. Usually underneath that there’s some description of some humorous awkward situation. Laughter often helps dispel such awkward moments, and thinking of them humorously lessens any lingering embarrassment we might have. Still, there are some awkward moments where humor isn’t appropriate. Some subjects just aren’t funny, like racism, or domestic violence. Someone brings them up, and it’s like all the air gets sucked out of the room. Nobody wants to talk about unpleasant things, or controversial things. With serious issues, we have strong beliefs, and this can easily lead to raised voices and injured feelings. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon us to sometimes endure the awkwardness in order to understand our world, and each other.
To me, it is always interesting to see the ways people react to each other, and the differences in circumstances that lead to different reactions. It’s yet another facet of my Asperger’s. I don’t have many of the social instincts and skills that “normal” people do. In order to compensate, I analyze the ways people react to each other, and the ways they react to different information. I’ve written on this before, so I won’t go into great detail, but it’s like the multiplication tables, only more complicated. If I memorize a set of simple rules and basic principles, I can (albeit slowly and awkwardly) figure out the more complicated problems of interacting with people. The things I do often become routine and memorized, while uncommon or novel situations present difficulty. It’s hit or miss whether I handle such situations well or poorly. There’s some situations I have yet to figure out at all. I suspect it’s partially because nobody knows any better than I do how to handle those awkward moments.
What I’m talking about today is that awkward moment when you find out someone has a mental illness. Anyone who reads this will already know I have Asperger’s and most know I take antidepressants. I’ve heard estimates as high as one in four people will take them at some point in their life. It’s a fairly common ailment, but people’s reaction to it is far from common. I’ve found that when people have a physical illness, like cancer or pneumonia, we usually react with sympathy or understanding. It’s not the most pleasant subject, but there’s usually not a whole lot of awkwardness about it. Being sick stinks. It’s not fun, and it’s not something anyone enjoys. Most everyone has been sick at some point so they can understand the difficulties that person is going through.
However, when someone finds out another person has a mental illness, the reaction is often very different, and I often wonder why. First, let me clarify, many people react to mental illness with the same sympathy and support that they would for a physical ailment. Still, there is a portion of the population that seems to react very negatively. Sometimes, the reaction is one of pity, and other times it is outright scorn. The person with the illness is immediately stigmatized and labeled. We use words like ‘crazy’, ‘insane’, ‘mad’, ‘nutty’, ‘off his rocker’, etc. It’s interesting because there are few such words for the physically ill or injured, and they are rightly frowned upon. After all, what decent person would call anyone a ‘cripple’? This difference may seem perfectly natural to most people, but to one who doesn’t really understand or even perceive many common cultural cues, it’s confusing and frustrating.
That’s not the only difference though. When you have a mental illness, there seems to be a greater expectation for you to hide that condition than for a comparable physical ailment or injury. Part of that is because physical ailments are often readily apparent. Obviously, if someone has a broken leg, or is sniffling and sneezing, or is blind or in a wheelchair, it’s immediately apparent. However, even for conditions which are invisible like diabetes, there’s no need to hide the fact. In fact, for safety reasons, many people with such medical conditions make it a point to tell their immediate friends, family, and co workers about their medical condition for safety reasons. They may have a condition that requires assistance or some kind of accommodation from time to time, and usually they are regarded much the same as healthy people. However, when one has a mental illness, it is not at all the same. One could debate the causes endlessly, but there’s no denying that when we find out someone has depression, or is bipolar, or has schizophrenia, the reaction is quite different.
Why? That’s a question I often ask. Is it because mental illness is invisible? Is it because there are many folks who still don’t believe psychology and psychiatry are legitimate branches of science and medicine respectively? Is it because science doesn’t understand how our nervous system works as well as we do our bones or muscles or kidneys? Is it because they think people with mental illness can somehow “just get over it”, or “suck it up”, or just change their personality to be more “normal”? Needless to say, if any of my readers think anything of the sort, I would like to dissuade you from that point of view. Being mentally ill sucks. It sucks just as much as being physically sick, and there’s the added problem of being stigmatized by significant numbers of people. I guarantee that nobody who has a mental illness wants to have it, anymore than they want to have AIDS. If we could “suck it up”, or “get over it”, we would. I dare say a great many of the mentally ill have tried that before they became so dysfunctional that they had no choice but to seek professional help and endure whatever stones that society would throw. I myself suffered in silence for many years, fearing that acknowledging my conditions would lead to institutionalization and/or disappoint my family and friends. In hindsight, I realize how distorted those feelings were, but such is often the case with the mentally ill. We do more damage to ourselves trying to deny or hide our problems.
This post is meant to get people to seriously examine the way they treat the mentally ill and mentally disabled. As those who read this blog will know by now, I believe that the key to learning lies in the asking of questions, and the serious examinations of ourselves and the world that we go through attempting to answer them. The answer itself, is often not as important. So, I would like to ask my readers these questions. Would you hire someone you knew had a mental illness, if you were making the decision? Would you hire someone you knew was confined to a wheelchair? Would you hire someone you knew had diabetes? If you answered these three questions differently, why? Would you go out on a date with someone you knew had a mental illness? If you found out one of your children’s teachers had a mental illness, would that bother you? Would you want to move your child from that class? Would you recommend that person for a raise, or a promotion? If someone living next door to you had bipolar disorder, would you want to know? Would you want to live next door to that person? Would you befriend a person with a mental illness?
I could go on, but I take it the message is clear enough. I’d also like to ask whether those questions above sound familiar? If they do, then perhaps it’s because those are questions that were once asked about people who were black, and people who had AIDS. Discrimination and prejudice takes many forms. It is not limited to race or gender or nationality. I will not go so far as to say that those with mental illness should be regarded exactly the same as healthy people. Mental illness is real, and places real limitations upon those who have it, but those limitations are very different from one illness to another, and most of them can be easily accommodated with a bit of compassion and patience. Prejudice exists when we allow irrational fears to creep into our thinking and our judgments. Not all fears are irrational. Some are quite rational and necessary. We all have prejudices. As we get older, they seep in slowly and imperceptibly like a creeping mold upon our minds. We have to be diligent to keep these prejudices out. So, let’s all examine ourselves, ask some hard questions, and see if we can’t get rid of some those irrational prejudices. Let’s be more accepting of each other and take some of the awkwardness out of those moments.
If you like what I’ve written here, feel free to share it with your friends and relatives, that we might all grow wiser through the sharing of ideas. That goes for all my posts really, but this one in particular, as it’s an issue that I feel very strongly about.