The Elephant in the Room

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Say the words, “mental illness” in conversation, and the whole room collectively stops talking and holds its breath. Few topics cause more unease, nervous laughter, or feelings of flight response. It’s a rare soul who sticks around for a curious, collaborative exploration of the topic. No, instead, we are more inclined to avoid any such discussion and marginalize those who suffer from any form of mental illness. Because May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and in honor of my mother who suffered from a mental illness, I offer the following.

Society at large seems to turn a blind eye to the prejudice which is shown toward fellow humans with mental illness. Mental illness is confusing, troubling, and unsettling: those who suffer from it may experience times when they don’t talk, act, or react in ways that can be easily interpreted or understood by others. Let’s face it: some episodes can be downright frightening. And those actions can spark reactions in those around them. Emotion is contagious, and when those in our circle are anxious, angry, paranoid, depressed, despondent, confused, worried, suicidal, or antisocial, we can pick up on some of that discomfort ourselves. No one likes discomfort. So, all too often, we pull away—it’s rather like the childhood injunction not to touch a hot stove, lest we get burned. If we feel like we’ve been “burned” by the unusual behaviors of someone we know, we are less inclined to include them in our lives. Therein lies the problem: the human tendency to stigmatize what we don’t understand.

 Stig’ma: (archaic) a mark or a brand burned into the skin of a criminal or slave

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Stigmatization marginalizes humans. It de-personalizes them. It judges them as unworthy and loudly proclaims: Stay Away. All other forms of illness are things that one has: diabetes, cancer, hypertension. But mental illnesses are often (and very incorrectly) described as what one is: bipolar, schizophrenic, and more.

On the other hand, some people’s responses to the idea of mental illness can swing too far in the other direction, enforcing the casual view that mental illness is just one more kind of illness a person has to make adjustments to deal with. Frederick Godwin, MD, former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health makes this statement: “When we’re dealing with the brain, we’re dealing with that interface between an illness and a person. So when we trivialize mental illness by saying it’s no different than high blood pressure, a lot of people who are pretty savvy say, “Wait a minute, this is a little different from high blood pressure.” That phrase, “the interface between illness and a person” is key because it begins to describe the incredible complexity and sensitivity needed to support such sufferers.

One of my all-time favorite scientists, the wise, humane, and curious Oliver Sacks, MD, makes this contribution to the discussion: “I don’t like that term mental illness. I think any, any difference, physical or mental, from the norm may be seen as frightening or threatening. But they’re as human as you are, as sensitive as you are, they have all the desires and dreams which you have, they have the abilities which you have, but may live to some extent from a different center. But allow that, and honor it. In some sense there should be realization that it’s ok to have mental illness (so called), and that a lot of the most important things in civilization have been brought about by people with ‘mental illness.’“

Ask yourself, “How would I feel if I were the one everyone looked away from?” Curiosity is a bridge to compassion. When we see a workmate, schoolmate, family member display behaviors that fall outside societal norms, be curious rather than leaping to judgement and avoidance. Ask yourself, “What must he/she have been feeling to be induced to act that way?” Please don’t think I’m recommending unsafe behaviors; taking someone who’s having a psychotic breakdown out for pizza isn’t what I’m talking about here. Rather, it’s time for all of us to become more aware of the isolation the mentally ill endure, and give some thought to how we can include them in our lives. It’s time to brainstorm ways to offer kind, compassionate support, and learn to recognize the incredible gifts and talents offered by humans dealing with mental illness.

Looking out for one another is a good place to start.

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NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness offers this helpful list of some warning signs that may indicate a mental illness:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
  • Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (“lack of insight” or anosognosia)
  • Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
  • Thinking about suicide
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
  • An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance (mostly in adolescents)

Mental health conditions can also begin to develop in young children. Because they’re still learning how to identify and talk about thoughts and emotions, their most obvious symptoms are behavioral. Symptoms in children may include:


  • Changes in school performance
  • Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance fighting to avoid bed or school
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Frequent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • See more at:


In closing, please check out these two helpful websites. Both strive to eliminate the bias and stigmatization I have discussed here today, and offer lots of valuable tips, videos, and resources for sufferers and their friends and loved ones.