Thursday, June 6, 2019

Boot Up

So in my wanderings around the wilds of the World Wide Web, I came across the following:

It's dated, given that it was meant to be seen in advance of World Mental Health Day, 2015, but it was still being put forward. And I understand the intent. But I think the message is misplaced.

The difference between "I'm undergoing bereavement" or "I'm wallowing in self-pity today out of frustration with a life setback" and "I'm suffering from Dysthymic Disorder" or "I'm having a Major Depressive Episode" et cetera, is not obvious to someone who has no real background in human psychology. I have a degree in Psychology, and even for someone close to me, it wasn't until their mental health really took a turn for the worse did it occur to me that something was seriously wrong.

So maybe a guide to recognizing and differentiating mental illness would be helpful? Oh. Wait. We already have those - they're 800+ pages long, and really only useful if you have the education to use them properly - a couple of 100-level Psych courses when you were in college isn't going to cut it. Neither, for that matter, will a decades-old (and otherwise unused) Bachelor's degree.

Messages like this are well meaning. But the takeaway, which tends to be "Can't you see I'm sick?" Isn't always helpful. I don't know how you give genuinely useful advice on how to deal with a mentally ill friend or relation in 21 words. (Trust me, I would have liked to have had it.) But "don't do X" leaves 25 letters of the alphabet, and doesn't help someone sort through those remaining choices. In other words telling a layperson to accurately diagnose a mental illness is like telling someone who doesn't know the language being spoken to "listen harder."

When I was still a young man, I worked with children who had been taken out of their homes for abuse or neglect. There was heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story a child needing to rely on a parent or other caregiver who simply couldn't hold it together and the need to "grow up early" because because that caregiver was simply too far gone. As I've grown old, I've realized that the stories are the same when adults need to rely on (or is having their life dismantled by) someone who suffers from a mental illness. If they aren't as heartbreaking, it's only because heartbreak is a finite resource.

Telling someone with a mental illness to snap out of it isn't a sign of malice or willful ignorance. It's a sign of helplessness, one that is easy to overlook or, yes, ignore. Helping mentally ill people often means putting time and effort into helping the healthy people around them understand what they can do (and sometimes, what they can't do). And that's hard. You can't just hand someone a DSM and say "Okay! There you go." It's a lot more work than that.

Condescendingly telling them that they're doing it wrong via a two-dozen word meme on the internet doesn't get us there. I don't know that the resources at this link will get us there, but I think they'll help.

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