“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
— Brené Brown
Every day, at a crisis center, we hear and see the effects mental illness has on others. One aspect I find most difficult is knowing how alone and ashamed many people with a chronic mental illness can feel. Daily, we hear people who have lost everything; family, housing, health, transportation and dignity because they have an undiagnosed/untreated mental illness. The truth is, the stigma around mental illness/mental health care still exists, despite many programs, educational materials, and famous people coming forward to talk about living with a chronic mental illness. As a society, we still have a tendency to fund programs which address issues during a crisis more than the preventative programs that might assist someone in getting help/recognizing they have a mental health challenge before it becomes a crisis. We still have television programs, movies, books and games that stereotype those with mental illness as monsters and killing machines.
Frequently we hear the same questions asked by callers, almost as if a mantra: “Why doesn’t anybody love me?” “Why can’t I keep a job?” “Why doesn’t my family talk to me?” “What is wrong with me?” The question most of our callers with a chronic mental illness ask is, “What is WRONG with me?” Whenever I hear this question, I cringe. There is nothing WRONG with a person because they have a mental illness. There is nothing wrong with a person who has a sinus infection or breast cancer. Often, we find ourselves reflecting upon the distortions that the shame of being “wrong” can do to someone. Granted, it may be the behaviors they have displayed that they feel the shame about, but at some point, don’t we all have a responsibility to ask ourselves, “What is the bigger picture here?” Instead of demonizing someone whose behaviors don’t fit the standard norms, why not ask, “What happened?”
Mental Health awareness also includes supporting those who have a loved one with a chronic mental illness. The same isolation and shame that are felt by the person who is ill is often shared by their loved ones. Parents wonder what they did “wrong.” Children feel embarrassed or scared by the actions a parent takes. Siblings are often the ones who shoulder the responsibility of caring for their loved one and that can become a basis of resentment, especially when they think they must shoulder the burden by themselves. Mental Health awareness calls for each of us to check in with caregivers. How can we give them an hour to call their own? What if we initiate spending time with family so that acceptance becomes the norm instead of isolation? What if instead of asking “What did (so and so) do now?” we ask, “How’s it going?”
Finally, how do we practice self-care? What does it take to recognize that maybe there is something happening that we want and need to address? Remembering that preventative thinking and actions are important aspects of self-care. I want to share a quote by Brene’ Brown, Author and Professor at the University of Houston, that I think is the root of what keeps us from self-awareness, acceptance of others and simply recognizing that there are people struggling everyday with mental health issues:
“I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. To be human is to be in vulnerability.”
For us to face our mental health and the mental health of others, we must accept that we are all vulnerable. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable so we can better accept others and their support.
We must accept the vulnerability of others when they are living with something that affects their behavior, decision making, and ways of communicating. When we see another person struggle, is it not normal for us to be reminded of our own struggles or the possibilities of struggles? Ultimately, it is my opinion, that to practice mental health awareness we must accept our own vulnerability. We must also recognize what actions, words and events threaten that vulnerability, and then find the healthiest ways to find safety. We must accept that the same process might be happening in others. To be aware of mental health is to accept the imperfections in humanity and love it anyway. So, today, I wish for you moments where your dignity is celebrated, your imperfections accepted (by you mostly), and your awareness broadened when talking with another who may need to be asked, “What happened? How’s it going?” Ask them and listen. It’s all about mental health awareness.
Author: Emily Norton, Resource and Crisis Helpline Specialist at Common Ground