Mental Health Misrepresented

Three Misconceptions of the Mentally Ill

Graphic Sebastien Cadieux & Julia Jones

I have a mental illness.
There, I said it.
While that might be the most versatile New Yorker cartoon caption you’ll ever find, I’m hard pressed to find a situation where I could admit that and not face immediate stigmatization.
Saying it is bad enough on its own, but like much of anything, it’s a lot worse due to the bevy of misconceptions that get passed around, unexamined and unchallenged.
This is as good a time as any to challenge what I consider the most damaging misconceptions regarding mental illness, but it also happens to be Depression Awareness Week, the one week a year in which you’re likely to get a little governmentally-mandated lip service to the issue.
I’m not mandated to tell you anything, so listen up.

The Mentally Ill Are Different

Mental health websites like to point out that those of us with depression belong to an esteemed group that includes such luminary figures as Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill. But that doesn’t stop most people from compiling their own “mental list” of the mentally ill that includes much less savoury characters, whose major contributions to society largely fall under the “negligible,” or “heinous” categories.

It’s irresistible to attribute a genius’ artistic ability to their mental illness, just as others might blame criminal behaviour on a lack of psychiatric care. All it does is serve to illustrate that mental illness doesn’t need to be crippling, nor does it, on its own, account for a person’s accomplishments. More importantly, it illustrates how unremarkable it is to have a mental illness.

While it’s nice to know I could one day revolutionize the way we look at the world through science, or lead the Allied Nations to victory against the Axis—although that’s a bit unlikely, and a tad anachronistic—I can also just be me. Just me.

But that still doesn’t do anything to dispel the common conception of mental illness as belonging solely to the “other.”
A recent ad campaign asked, “How should you treat someone you know who has a mental illness?” Their answer, “Exactly the same as before you knew.”

That this isn’t common sense is distressing and not entirely difficult to believe.

Unfortunately, there are no “get well” cards for mental health; that would surely be the sign of an open and tolerant society (a society which also happens to be capitalistic). So in lieu of overt expressions of sympathy and camaraderie with the mentally ill, probably the best course of action is to treat them like everybody else.

Preferential treatment isn’t always bad, though. Just saying.

The Drugs Don’t Work, They Just Make You Worse

A recent headline on The Huffington Post declared, “Antidepressants Don’t Work.” First of all, that’s not what the author of the article—to their credit—actually said, which was actually about the tendency for medical journals to trump evidence for the effectiveness of certain brands over evidence of ineffectiveness.

I won’t psychoanalyze the editors at The Huff Po—although they do have an unhealthy obsession with alternative medicine at the expense of, well, medicine—but you don’t see that same kind of knee-jerk skepticism directed at other kinds of medication. To deny that antidepressants have any benefit does a huge disservice to those who really need them.

The side effects that come with any medication can make one think—initially, at least—that they’re worse off than they were before. But when an antidepressant works, it can be lifesaving. Literally.

Before I found the right medication for me, I tried herbal remedies like St. John’s Wart. I say that with embarrassment, because unlike antidepressants, St. John’s Wart categorically doesn’t work beyond the placebo effect. Sorry.
Even medications that worked for good friends of mine had little effect on me. But when I found the right medication, my friends and family were usually the first to know. They told me how different I was while on the medication—well, different is relative, because, in fact, I had reverted to the way I used to be before my illness turned me into someone unlike myself. That isn’t to say some people weren’t completely oblivious to what I was going through. Actually, they probably ranked in the majority.

Medication is a treatment, not a cure. I’ve had two relapses since my initial diagnosis and I don’t consider it coincidental that they both occurred when I attempted to get off of my medication. That’s why it’s important to combine drugs with other forms of treatment, which brings me to my third point.

Psychiatry Deals with Repressed Memories of Childhood Suffering

If you’ve ever watched a TV show about someone who has a mental illness, you’ve probably seen an episode where a character has an irrational fear of something, like water, or Lady Gaga. The character was probably cured of that fear by seeing a psychiatrist who helps uncover a forgotten childhood memory. For instance, they were briefly held underwater by a bully until they nearly drowned in the first grade, all while Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” played unsympathetically in the background. After the memory has resurfaced—in more ways than one—their fear is gone and they can go on with their lives.

I hate to say this, but psychiatry is more like it is on The Sopranos. Tony Soprano never quite manages to overcome all of his issues in a single session, necessitating the show’s format as a television series and not an HBO movie.
It’s crucial to talk to someone about what you’re going through, and while family can be supportive, the news of how you’re feeling can be more than they can handle (just imagine talking to your parents about sex, and then nod your head appreciatively at my insight).

The same goes for friends. A supportive friend can be an unbelievably effective aid, but you can never tell how a friend will react to the news of your depression, and losing a friend to the “walking on eggshells” phenomenon can be devastating. A friend who can be your rock to lean on is fantastic, but you can’t expect everyone to be so understanding.
No one knows you better than yourself, but trust me when I say a psychiatrist probably knows more about what you’re going through, and how to take steps to change it, than you do.

Like medication, it took me time to find a psychiatrist I liked and felt comfortable with. Unlike medication, though, I can go without seeing my psychiatrist for long periods of time. Still, I’d never recommend braving life alone, depression or not.

I have barely scratched the surface of what people should know about mental health, let alone depression; and I apologize if I use the terms interchangeably, although its difficult to talk about the latter without invoking the former. All I pray is that you don’t ever have to know exactly what I mean when I talk about what it is to have depression.

I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I wouldn’t tolerate it happening to a friend.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 08, published October 5, 2010.