MENTAL ILLNESS IS INVISIBLE

Hello my Zebras and Spoonies! Thanks for coming and visiting with me today. I’m glad that you’re here.

Today I’m going to be talking about the idea that mental illness is an invisible illness. This is something that I both agree and don’t agree with. And here is a trigger warning: I will be talking about suicide in this post. So if that is a topic that you have a difficult time with then you should probably pass on this one.

I get the idea that you can’t look at someone and know that they have mental illness. The same way that you can’t look at someone and know that they have high blood pressure. In this way, mental illnesses are invisible.

But I think that this is a misleading statement. When we engage with others, we compare them to the social norm. We know when people are not behaving the way that we expect them to. It may or may not be because of mental illness. But we are not clueless. Humans are very aware and perceptive to the behavioral patterns of others. Social mores are well established and are something that most people can’t explain but can still identify when someone is acting outside that rule set. In this way, mental illness is very visible.

Just because we don’t recognize it as mental illness doesn’t mean that we aren’t seeing it. Because of that, I think that educating the public can help save lives. In the same way that education about heart attacks has saved lived. These days, almost everyone can tell you the symptoms of a heart attack and many are CPR certified. I’d like mental illness to have that same kind of educational change. People should know the signs of mental illness and what the warning signs of suicide are. People should know what to do when someone is suicidal.

I feel that mental illnesses being invisible is more about people being unable to correctly associate what they are seeing with an illness. All of my life, I have experienced the classic social response given to those who are behaving outside the social mores: shunning and shaming. Even as young children, my peers were aware that I was different then them and that I was behaving in ways that they didn’t expect. In this way, my mental illness has never been invisible. But because it was undiagnosed until my mid twenties, it was also invisible. Because while people saw that I was different, they were not able to also recognize that it was an inherent biological process that was making be behave differently. I was treated as though my differences were a choice I was making.

I find this to be an interesting paradox of being both very visible and also invisible. When we look at cases of suicide, we are able to see risk factors for suicide and symptoms for mental illness that lead up to their suicide. This is very telling in that it means that suicidality isn’t just about having thoughts about killing yourself. There are things that people do, ways they behave and risk factors they carry that all proceed the actual event of their suicide. Thus, being suicidal is visible. Yet, it is usually not noticed by those around the suicidal person which further exacerbates their struggle. In this way, mental illness is very invisible.

So, what can we do to make these visible symptoms something that people actually notice and then associate with mental illness? Advocate, educate and relate. We need to advocate for an increase in mental health services and research so that people are more likely to get the support they need when they are struggling. We need to educate so that people understand that what they are seeing is part of an illness. And we need to tell our personal stories so that we can relate to the people around us.

Because the terrible truth is that mental illness is not a benign condition. Having any mental illness (not just depression) increases your risk for death by suicide. In fact, when considering a person’s risk for suicide any mental illness diagnosis is given an equal weight as a risk factor. However, having ADHD actually presents a higher risk for suicide than depression because criminal problems, financial problems, impulsivity, job problems, legal problems and substance use disorder are all considered risk factors for suicide and are much more likely in ADHD than in any other mental illness.

In 2019, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of over 47,500 people. Someone is more likely to die from suicide then murder. In 2019, there were nearly two and a half times as many suicides in the United States as there were homicides. So, despite being so common, suicide is not generally talked about and is almost never covered on the news. This is another way that mental illness is invisible. If you shoot someone else it is highly likely that your case will be featured in the news. Shoot yourself and it is unlikely that anyone who didn’t know you will talk about it.

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