Monday, October 7, 2013

Mental Health: Not always a matter of will

A few days ago an author posted a tweet. This isn't really news, as many authors post tweets every day. This, however, was one that I kind of felt was harmful in several ways.

The post in question was from global bestselling author Laurell K Hamilton on the subject of mental illness and while I don't think she meant any true ill will, it's something that made me more than a little mad.
The gist of the tweet was that Hamilton was talking about her own battle with mental illness and how she felt like she was taking charge of the situation. However at the same time the tweet sends off a dangerous message: that what happens in the course of mental illness is all down to choice.

Don't get me wrong. To a degree choice does factor into how your mental illness unfolds. If someone knows that they are suffering from a mental illness, has the ability to access mental health care, and chooses to do so, then they are influencing their future. The same goes for someone in this situation who chooses not to get help.

However mental illness isn't as easy as getting help and telling yourself that you won't do something harmful. It doesn't work that way. If it did, then every clinic out there would have people who walk in and out of the doctor's office in perfect mental health.

Sometimes a person can have depression that sinks in so heavily that they can't stop themselves from doing or thinking things that are detrimental to themselves and the people around them. Even if a portion of their brain is screaming out that picking up that shotgun is not the answer, their mental illness is screaming at them even louder and makes it impossible for that part of their mind to be heard.

Sometimes people can really, really want to break a cycle of mental illness but have no access to health care. Yes, yes. I know that some will say that many places have free or nearly free health facilities or suicide hotline numbers to call to talk to people. Not everyone has the ability to access those and for some, the free or nearly free alternatives aren't enough. Despite this being a bright shiny world where people are supposed to have more access to health care options and support groups than ever before, not everyone has equal access to these things.

And sometimes a person's culture, environment, or upbringing can make an equally huge difference. Some people grow up being told that seeking a psychiatrist or therapist means that you're completely and utterly broken, that there's something so wrong with you that you deserve to be locked away from humanity. There was and in many places, still is a huge stigma associated with seeking professional help. Some cultures and religions still see this kind of therapy as "bad".

The problem with all of this, and I'm running into a rant here, is that it's not as easy as saying that someone's will will make all the difference in how their mental health unfolds. A person can have access to great health care, have a huge support network, and a wonderfully rational mind full of common sense... yet still be unable to will themselves healthy. For Hamilton to essentially make it seem like mental health is all about telling yourself you won't fail is a hugely dangerous message.

It tells people that if their minds are telling them that they're worthless, that they aren't "trying hard enough to be happy". Hyperbole and a Half did an excellent blog on how depression isn't always easily solved by you trying to will yourself into a happy state. A person can know that their line of thinking isn't "right" or "logical" and try so damn hard to turn everything around... yet it doesn't work. For someone to say that "Force of will makes the difference" can make people feel like they're even more useless and that they aren't doing things right.

The problem is that there's no right way to do things. Sometimes someone can go into things with an extremely strong will and the mindset that they will beat their depression... yet still end up losing the battle.

How do I know this?

A few years ago my uncle shot himself. He'd been battling depression for years and had a mind that was unbelievable. My uncle had an amazingly large circle of friends, family, and students. He made a huge impact on the people around him to where we couldn't have all of his mourners in the funeral home. We still have people stop by my grandparents' house on the anniversary of his death. My uncle was far from perfect, but he was what people call "a damn good person".

But he still shot himself. And yes, he reached out to people around him for help. But sometimes none of that is enough. Sometimes someone can get so overwhelmed with their depression and mental problems that all of the ideas of willpower, support networks, and professional help get washed away in the moment. Sometimes people can have that brief moment where they can call for help. Sometimes they have people around them that can call for help. But sometimes they don't. My uncle fought for a long time and he was one of thousands of people who lose the fight against depression every year.

Don't get me wrong. A mindset can have an impact on someone's mental health. It's just that so often people tend to assume that someone can will themselves out of depression. Sometimes they can. But not everyone. That's why it's very dangerous to make blanket statements like the one Hamilton did.

If she was some nobody then this might not be so bad, but she's someone with a large audience and her words get read by a lot of people. I don't think her intent was to make it sound like someone can will themselves better and that if they fail then it's because they "didn't try hard enough", but that's what it comes across like.

I haven't posted in a really long time due to school, but Hamilton's tweet pissed me off royally and I had to write something about it.

Further reading:

Hyperbole and a Half: Adventures in Depression
*Hyperbole and a Half: Depression Part 2

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