Mental illness. Why don’t we talk about it?
There have been a number of taboos in society over the years, and one by one they have slipped (or been forced) into mainstream conversation. Sex, alternative lifestyles, birth control, racial equality, etc. But mental illness has somehow remained elusive.
I recently listened to a scary, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting tale of mental illness, Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan. In the book, Cahalan describes her “month of madness,” detailing how she slipped dangerously close to coma and even death due to a rare autoimmune disease which caused her body to attack her brain. Although she has no memory of her month-long hospital stay, the then 24-year-old compiled an amazingly detailed recollection based on doctor interviews, family journals and medical records. Per Callahan, this illness is now considered to be the source of “demonic possessions” throughout history.
I appreciate Cahalan having the courage to write this memoir and relive this terrifying experience. It was amazing to see how much about the brain is still unknown and how dangerously close this young, bright journalist was to being committed to a lifetime of institutions and being written off as psychotic.
Reading (or in my case listening) to a book of this nature is disconcerting, because it forces you to come to terms with how precious life is. One day we’re experiencing life as usual, then suddenly we’re falling off a cliff with no parachute.
Maybe that’s why mental illness is still such a taboo subject. It makes us uncomfortable because of how little we still understand about so many mental illnesses and how quickly we could end up in an institution.
That’s why I admire people like Elyn Saks, who came forward to discuss her struggle with schizophrenia in a TED Talk. Watching Saks detail her struggles to cope illuminated just how difficult mental illnesses are to deal with, especially in a world that still shies away from the subject. (For more TED Talks that will stretch your mind on mental illness, click here.)
While we continue to research and learn about mental illnesses, we need people to continue to come forward with their stories of heartbreak and courage. They will help us all to see that mental illness can be the subject of conversation, and ultimately answers.
What are your thoughts on this subject?
Have you come across any other wonderful resources? If so, please share! We can all benefit from learning more about this subject and educating those around us.
Photo and Susannah Cahalan’s Month of Madness video courtesy of her website
Elyn Saks: A tale of mental illness — from the inside courtesy of TED Talks