I am about to tell you why you should NOT care at all about mental illness.
Yes, you read that right. While that might sound completely contradictory to the essence of this blog, it isn’t. In fact, understanding this reality is the first step in changing the way we approach mental health and as I wrote about previously, making a difference together.
Imagine the Following Story:
There was a woman who experienced great difficulty when giving birth to a baby boy. The doctors did their best, but they informed the woman that she was on the verge of death. During their final goodbyes, she told her husband, “I want you to promise me one thing. When our son becomes bar mitzvahed, take him to shul on my yahrtzeit (anniversary of my death) to say kaddish (praise of G-d despite the loss of life) for me. If you do that, I will be forever happy.”
Thirteen years later, the father excitedly went to shul with his son on his wife’s yahrtzeit. The father was so happy that he would finally be able to fulfill his wife’s dying wish. When the time came to say kaddish, the two of them began reciting it together. The father, who had been saying kaddish on this day since his wife’s passing, said it this time with a special intensity. He knew that his wife was smiling down upon him from heaven. The son, however, said the kaddish without any passion. He mumbled through the words emotionlessly, unaffected by what he was saying.
His father saw what his son was doing and dragged him out of shul immediately.
“What’s wrong with you?!” his father snapped. “This was your mother’s dying wish, and you can’t even honor it! Where’s your emotion?”
“I’m sorry,” the son responded defensively, “But what do you want from me? I never knew the woman! How do you want me to feel the pain of the loss if I never experienced it?”
Our Emotions are Defined by Our Experiences
As humans, we are emotionally impacted the most by those things that have relevance or connection to our lives.
Let’s say two people watched the Super Bowl together- an Atlanta Falcons’ fan and a Jacksonville Jaguars’ fan. When the Falcons lost, one of them was devastated, having had the experience of spending his whole life becoming attached to the Falcons, while the other one didn’t really care so much. Perhaps he was slightly annoyed because he didn’t like the Patriots (who does?), but he wasn’t nearly as emotionally upset as his friend.
This is the way that we are programmed: we only care about the things that mean something to us through experiences.
Experiences and Mental Illness
For those of you that don’t have a mental illness, I can’t blame you if you don’t care. You’re like the boy saying kaddish or the Jaguars’ fan after the Falcon’s lost game. You were never impacted (at least directly) by mental illness, so it makes sense if it doesn’t emotionally affect you the same way as it does for others. Personally, I didn’t care about mental illness until I developed one. Because I never experienced it, I didn’t know its significance. But now I do. Now I know how unbelievably common it is. Now I know how hard it can be to live a normal, happy life while struggling with a mental illness.
And that is exactly why I am calling out to you, the people who DON’T have a mental illness.
I apologize if this comes across as arrogant or offensive, but I don’t think that you care about mental health as much as I do.
Make no mistake about it: perhaps even more commendations are owed to those who fight for mental health advocacy despite not having been motivated to do so by firsthand experience.
If I’m wrong about those without a mental illness not caring as much about mental health, which I hope I am, then I am very sorry.
If I’m right, then I want to help you. I want to help put you in the shoes of someone who has a mental illness so that you can start to feel what it’s like.
Feeling The Pain
Of course, I don’t really know what it’s like to have mental illnesses that I have thank G-d never experienced. If a close friend of mine tells me that they have an eating disorder, I will be sympathetic, but if they tell me that they suffer from social anxiety or depression just like I do, then I will treat their illness as if it was my own.
Below you will find a list. I warn you in advance that this is not a happy list. This is a list full of difficulties, sorrows, and things which you may not even believe exist. Some things will make you think, “They actually think/act that way? That’s ridiculous!” You might have trouble understanding how an alcoholic would mug someone just to get a drink, or how someone with social anxiety would avoid going to school forever. Unfortunately, however, it is the reality for many, many people. Though, it is certainly important to be clear that while it is the reality for many, not everyone with these mental illnesses will necessarily experience these symptoms in this exact way.
People with mental illnesses need your help to end the stigma surrounding mental health. The first step to doing that is feeling their pain.
All I ask of you is one thing while you read the list: Try to imagine to the best of your ability that you are the person being described in each scenario. Maybe pause to reflect after each of the scenarios. If you are, in fact, that person being described below and have a mental illness, please let this list be evidence that you are far from alone.
You have a miserable time at your best friends’ wedding or can’t even go because of your social anxiety.
You never get married because your social anxiety makes dating hopeless.
You spend so much time making sure that your outfit is perfect, because your social anxiety makes you think that people are constantly looking at you and judging your every minor move.
Your social anxiety makes you think that when people don’t respond quickly to your texts, it is because you said something wrong.
You can’t ask your teacher or fellow students for help in class because of your social anxiety.
You don’t go to meals because your social anxiety makes you scared that you might have to sit with some people that you don’t feel comfortable with.
You basically feel like you are gonna die when you have to introduce yourself because of your social anxiety.
You want to do youth movement programs – such as NCSY or Bnei Akiva – and inspire people, but you can’t because of your social anxiety.
You feel so uncomfortable, even frightened, in large spaces such as malls because of your social anxiety.
You don’t go to Yeshiva/Seminary, college, or even summer camp (or you drop out) because of your social anxiety.
You can’t get a job because of your social anxiety.
Depression often comes because of your social anxiety.
You cry yourself to sleep many nights because of your depression.
You stop eating because of your depression.
You stop smiling because of your depression.
You feel that you make others around you sad because of your depression.
You obsess over ending your life because of your depression.
You start lashing out at the people around you because of the anger problems caused by your depression and social anxiety.
You often can’t go out to have fun with your friends because of your depression and social anxiety.
You turn to substance abuse, such as alcohol, due to your depression and social anxiety.
You want to and often do spend all day doing nothing in your room because of your depression and social anxiety.
You can’t chase your dreams because of your depression and social anxiety.
Imagine that that list was about you.
Imagine that that was your life.
Imagine that that was your battle.
Imagine that that was your pain.
And lastly, imagine a better life for people with mental illnesses. Because with your help, they will get one.
What would you add to the list? Please share your thoughts for the author below.