We Kill What We Do Not Understand

And the call of the roads is upon me, a desire in my spirit has grown
To wander forth in the highways, ‘twixt earth and sky alone,
And seek for the lands no foot has trod and the seas no sail has known
~ C. S. Lewis, “The Roads,” in Spirits in Bondage

It’s called “agnostophobia,” and it simply means “fear of the unknown.” (The other related word, “xenophobia,” means quite specifically “pathological fear of strangers,” foreigners.[i]) This is what many people with mental illness face in society at large, and it can be very uncomfortable. Point in fact, it usually is, unless the one who suffers the illness has grown a thick hide, so to speak.

“People fear what they cannot understand,” said Andrew Smith, “and they hate what they cannot conquer.” Touché! And more specifically to the point of mental illness, Elyn R. Saks, associate professor at the University of Southern California and mental health expert and advocate, hit the proverbial nail on the head when she opined, “Stigma against mental illness is a scourge with many faces, and the medical community wears a number of those faces.”

Even in this 21st century, in the Western world, where we are supposed to be so advanced and so enlightened, we are still culturally very ignorant of mental illness (and mental health,) which is largely why there is an ongoing stigma revolving around those who are psychologically burdened and suffering.[ii] This is all the more amazing when we consider the fact that fully one out of every four adults will experience mental illness at some point in their lives, however short might be the duration.[iii]

fear_of_the_unknownMuch of the continuing misunderstanding and stigma surrounding mental illness can, of course, be attributed to the world of popular entertainment. Consider for a moment so many popular psychopaths, such as: Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Sybil Dorsett, Annie Wilkes, Norman Bates, and many others. But then there are the real-life psychopaths that the media (in all forms) has consistently brought into our homes via television, radio, newspapers, the Internet … such as: Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Aileen Wuornos, Amy Archer-Gilligan, etc.

But then there is the lesser, “minor” mental illnesses that people commonly misunderstand and, thus, stigmatize. For instance, depression and anxiety. With clinical depression those who suffer may very well be, and often are, told to just “get over it … put a smile on and face the day! No need to ‘wallow’ in depression!” Of course, the antagonist here simply does not understand that one doesn’t just “get over” depression. Likewise with anxiety. The sufferer hears someone say, “Just calm down, everything’s alright. No need to worry,” or the horrid question, “Why are you falling apart? Nothing is wrong!”

Whether it’s one of the “biggies,” like schizophrenia or oppositional defiant disorder or pyromania,[iv] or one of the “littler ones,” Patrick Corrigan and Amy Watson are right:

Many people with … mental illness are challenged doubly. On one hand, they struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that result from the disease. On the other, they are challenged by the stereotypes and prejudice that result from misconceptions about mental illness. As a result of both, people with mental illness are robbed of the opportunities that define a quality life: good jobs, safe housing, satisfactory health care, and affiliation with a diverse group of people.[v]

So what can those of us who suffer, or who have a close family member or friend who suffers, from mental illness do? Well, from my own personal experience I would suggest the following:

  1. Know Yourself: Come to know who you really are, constantly calling to mind that you are not defined by your illness. Grasp this truth. Celebrate it. Expand upon it as you look ever more deeply into yourself.
  2. You are not Jeffrey Dahmer, Jason Voorhees, or Sybil Dorsett… And even if you do happen to struggle with, shall we say, inclinations in that direction, there is still much help for you. Yes, you can lead an active, healthy, good and satisfying life. It’s there for you.
  3. Know your illness. Know as much as you possibly can about what afflicts you. After all, knowledge truly is powerful. Knowledge also gives you greater ability to confront, manage, and perhaps even improve your overall situation. Look, it’s happened before!
  4. Knowledge also gives you an advantage over the ignorance of other people, and, who knows, you might actually have an opportunity to educate someone.
  5. Know and remember that there are an untold number of “normal” individuals out there, who simply have not been diagnosed! They struggle each and every day with some mental illness … or, maybe, many. You are more likely to be able to spot those people. Have compassion on them; they need it, and lots of empathetic understanding, too. And don’t be surprised if, at some point, they trust you enough to open up and share with you their struggles, suffering and pain. If you can help them, then help. Just be sure not to lose yourself, or “drown,” in the process!

There are probably many other suggestions I could relate, such as referring folks to NAMI or NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) for more (and accurate) information on the various mental illnesses and how to best relate to someone who suffers one or more mental illness. Also, where you yourself are concerned, it’s always important to practice good mental health. Personally, I find physical exercise, meditation, and prayer, among other activities, to be good activities leading to good mental health.

What about you? What has been your experience with mental illness? Have you faced stigma? What about your mental health, whether you bear the burden of mental illness or not? Do you practice good mental health? If so, how? Share your answers and comments below. You don’t know who you might be helping in the process!

[i] American Psychological Association, APA Dictionary of Psychology, 1006

[ii] Judy Marshall, “Mental Illness: Stigma and Reality,” as accessed on 09/22/2018, at www.psychmaster.com

[iii] Pete Etchells, “Mental Illness Stigma Has Not Gone Away,” as accessed on 09/22/2018 at www.theguardian.com

[iv] Cf. David Kupfer, Darrel Regier, Dan G. Blazer, et al, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, (DSM-5), 90 – 122, 462, and 476 respectively

[v] Corrigan and Watson, “Understanding the Impact of Stigma on People With Mental Illness,” as accessed on 09/22/2018 at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles


4 thoughts on “We Kill What We Do Not Understand

  1. Thank you for this illustrative post. There are always degrees of mental illness. I am mildly on the autism spectrum, and so have managed to live a full life (earned a Master’s Degree, worked in several schools, building successful programs, and even ran a few schools and in thirty years of marriage, helped raise a fine young man to adulthood). I have several friends who are mentally ill, to one degree or another. Most of them have also managed to live full, accomplished lives. One colleague said it best- “We are all autistic, schizophrenic, etc., even if to a slight degree.” So, why cast stones, indeed?

    1. Oh wow! Thank you so much for opening up and sharing! Indeed, there are many of us who go on to lead full and productive lives, and there are many who simply need some assistance but with that assistance can also lead healthy and productive lives… And, my oh my, I do certainly agree with your friend! God bless you! 🙂

  2. That is a well-written and interesting article. Beginning with the C.S. Lewis quote put me in the mindset of considering mental illness and Christianity and their compatibility or incompatibility (take your pick). And I don’t see how there can be anything really incompatible from a mechanistic point of view, Like a thermostat we are basically homeostatic mechanisms. I guess, really, homeodynamic would be a better term, Ive heard. Physiologically I would say we are always engaged in some sort of self-regulation internally (whether through feedback loops or otherwise) that keeps us balanced as animal entities. So, if we knew how to self-regulate we could probably keep ourselves in perfect balance. Eating the exact, perfect meal at the exact, right time, and getting the perfect exercise routine that would work in conjnction with our diet and sleep to keep us perfectly calibrated. (Of course that may be a bit too simplistic). Maybe the Garden of Eden had just the right proportion and type of nutrient to keep us perfectly balanced – who knows! But we are in a condition in which we don’t last no matter what we do. Well, when we acknowledge John 3:16 and believe, we do gain life there. But until the resurrection, I guess we are destined to deteriorate to some degree daily. The question that comes to mind is how. On the one hand we talk about diseases and illnesses and diagnoses as given facts, while on the other hand, we tend to leave out the painful talk of prevention. Painful, because if our lack of good habits or our excessive bad habits have contributed to causing our illness, it seems much easier – indeed often times necessary – to simply take a pill (often in the case of mental illness) or some other type of treatment or operation. We continually read reports and studies that indicate the role the nicotine can play in mental illness and schizphrenia. Our bodies were designed for movement and exercise, and when we neglect to exercise whether for a limited time or a protracted time, we run the risk of throwing off our balance, And while we learn increasingly more about our “mechanism” there is so much that we just don’t know and won’t know unless God allows us to know. But we do know and have learned from the Bible little bits of information that touch on diet, mental health and our physical well being. We have discovered on our own many things that are not good for us and which contribute to dis-ease. anyway good article you wrote.

    1. Thank you, Carl, for such an informative, thorough, and well-articulated response! You have blessed me with your comment, and I pray blessings upon you, as well. Thank you!

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