As a society, it is fair to say that we have been making steady progress in our understanding, acceptance, and treatment of mental health issues. While we still have a long way to go in making mental health treatment easily accessible to all, it is available. So why do some people just not seek the support they need?
I have studied psychology and mental health for almost seven years now, I like to think that I have a fairly good understanding of how various mental health conditions present and how to separate symptoms and construct a preliminary diagnosis, (Full disclaimer, I am not qualified to diagnose others, I am only applying my knowledge to myself).
After a year of serious focus on the aspects of life and mental health that I personally struggle with, analysing the symptoms I experience, looking back at my past experiences, I know what I am experiencing.
I know that it is diagnosable. I know that I should get it formally diagnosed and seek treatment for it. But I haven’t, and likely won’t for the foreseeable. Now you’re probably thinking that I’m stupid, maybe I am but hear me out.
The thing with mental health issues is, they often creep up on you. Something in your brain chips away at you little by little, subtly, almost completely unnoticed for a long time before suddenly bringing everything crashing down.
The best analogy I can think of is a leaky pipe. It can drip, drip, drip entirely undetected, no increased water bill, no sound, no clue. But over time, the water is penetrating the plaster of the ceiling and if your paintwork is good enough you don’t even notice a stain.
Then one day you come home and a whole chunk of your ceiling has crumbled away, leaving a mess on the carpet and a huge ugly hole to repair. Now a small, simple fix has become a cleanup job, repair bill, and plasterer/decorator work.
Because these issues don’t normally hit you like a tonne of bricks from the start you get used to the symptoms, if you let them go unchecked for long enough they become your reality, you’re normal. They might even become a part of your identity. That’s where I’m at.
The symptoms that I’ve experienced have been part of my everyday experience for as long as I can remember, since I was a child. Granted they have worsened over time, as any untreated illness would, but I don’t know what life is like without them.
You’re probably thinking “Well surely it can only be better without them?” and I reckon you’d be right. In fact, I know that you are right because that’s something that I also tell myself whenever I’m debating with myself to get help or not.
The problem is, we are naturally, biologically wary of the unknown.
The thoughts I have as a result of mixed wiring in my brain consume a lot of my time. They also are exceptionally good at masquerading as normal thoughts, or at least they’re good at convincing me that everyone thinks as I do.
They also convince me that they are helpful thoughts, that they will help me reach the goals I have set in my mind and without them how will I ever be happy? How will I achieve my goals? How could I live with myself if I wilfully became a failure in my own eyes? All these components eventually lead where they always lead: to almost zero attempts at obtaining help, and I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.
From an outside perspective, I am certain that it makes little, to no sense that someone would actively avoid obtaining a diagnosis and treatment for an illness, and yet I think that it may be the key to gaining a more widespread, deeper understanding of just how mental illnesses work.
Unlike physical illnesses, issues that affect our brain have a unique way of preventing the object from helping itself. If we have an ache or pain, our brain tells us that something is wrong and that we should take a painkiller or see a doctor if necessary.
If we are vomiting or have a fever, we know to seek medical attention because again, our brain tells us something is wrong. So, when the issue is with the brain itself, how do we know if we need help or not?
If you learn anything this Mental Health Awareness Week, please let it be this: Those who are suffering from mental health issues are often acutely aware that there is something wrong with them, but when those lucid thoughts arise they are impeded by the reaction of their off-balance brain to rationalise every irrational thought or behaviour.
So how can we help the people we love? Well, like most things with mental illness, it’s a long process. A lot of love, understanding, and above all, listening is needed to help steer someone toward obtaining help.
As frustrating as it may be at times (for both parties), shaming, bullying, belittling, or yelling will never encourage someone to seek help. Just remember that deep down, those struggling do want to be helped, it just takes some time.