What if society treated mental illness as a physical illness?

Looking around my Facebook newsfeed, I come across multiple friends posting a Huffington Post article entitled “What if Physical Illnesses Were Treated Like Mental Illness?” As someone who has suffered from multiple mental illnesses in my lifetime, I was curious about this article. I clicked on it and received a huge surprise.

The page shows a comic strip by artist Robot Hugs depicting pictures of people suffering from physical ailments, including cancer, diabetes, cuts, the stomach flu and severed limbs. It shows other people talking to these victims in an unsupportive and downright ridiculous way. Would a person ever say, “Have you tried not having the flu?” when someone is vomiting, or, “You are not even trying to get better” when someone is bleeding profusely from an injury? Of course not. These phrases are demeaning to those with physical illness. So why do we treat mental illnesses any differently?

People who suffer from mental illness hear these comments every day. I can attest to this from personal experience. I have had people tell me that I am not trying hard enough to get out of bed, that I don’t want to get better because I sometimes sit on the couch all day and that I waste time with TV because I have no motivation. I have been told that I need to just “get over” my anxiety already and that it is not actually that hard to talk to people. I have been told that if I just changed my frame of mind, all my fears would go away. But this is not how mental illnesses work.

You cannot tell someone with cancer to “get over” his pain in the same way that you can’t tell someone with a mental illness that she should forget hers. Mental illnesses are very prevalent in this society and should be taken seriously. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness NAMI, one in four adults experiences mental illness in any given year. There are so many suffering people who are not being validated, loved and treated with respect. Instead, they are shunned and forced to remain silent about their mental health to avoid being called attention-seekers. This shame and silence can be potentially dangerous and life-threatening.

Another misconception about mental illnesses is that they only exist in the individual’s head, as some individuals do not experience physical symptoms. However, this is simply untrue. Yes, everyone who suffers from depression or anxiety has a different experience, but there are people who experience physical symptoms as well. I know I certainly have. Headaches, fatigue, nausea, stomach pains and joint pain are all symptoms that I have had to deal with in my life. And whenever I suffer from a panic attack, I experience lightheadedness, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing and chest tightness. It is a terrifying experience, and I am sick and tired of people telling me that I have nothing to worry about or that the challenges I face are not real, because they are incredibly real. My mental heatlh conditions are important and should be treated with empathy and kindness, just like how my friends who struggle with physical illnesses are treated, and not with the scrutiny and disregard they are given now.

The next time you encounter someone with a mental illness, validate that person’s feelings. Tell them that you are proud of them for opening up about their mental health, because that is a very difficult thing to do. Listen to what they have to say and only give advice if they ask for it. Take everything that they tell you about their illness seriously. Be their support when they need it and encourage them with every small step they take toward recovery. Tell them that they matter and they are loved.

But most importantly, just treat them with respect like you would any other human being. You never know what someone is truly feeling or whether or not a person is suffering. Please remember that everyone’s mental health concerns are just as important as the next person’s, and treat them with respect, empathy and dignity.

Bella Mosqueda ’17 mosquedi@stolaf.edu is from Maple Grove, Minn. She majors in Psychology and Environmental Studies.