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We need to stop blaming the mentally ill

The precipitation of a lot of the problem is brought on by nurture.

 |  4-minute read |   08-10-2015
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It’s world mental health week. This morning someone asked me, "What do you think this world mental health week means for us as an educated community?" My answer, as you may have guessed, was a resounding “absolutely nothing”. No one knows it’s happening; there are no twisted ribbons on people’s clothes, no fancy events. We don’t even know what mental health means, and too easily equate it with happiness. So if you’re not happy, you’re mentally ill. If you’re not constantly productive at work, you’re mentally ill. If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing according to those around you, you’re mentally ill.

Notice the allegation against the person: you’re mentally ill. You’re weak-willed, you’re crazy, and what have you.

This is a culture of blame, which is a pretty obvious explanation for the stigma that surrounds mental illness. You can’t possibly share the fact that you’re feeling mentally unwell – you’ll get fired, you’ll get divorced, you’ll lose your rights to property; hell, you can be institutionalised, medicated and be given electroconvulsive therapy against your will. Everything can be done to you – you, the culprit.

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Blame corners the person. It compounds the illness. It communicates to you, sometimes on your face and sometimes subtly, that everyone is outside of your illness. It “logically” follows then that it somehow must be your fault. It says to you that you have brought this upon yourself, and that you deserve to be cast aside. This will never encourage anyone to talk about it, share it, or even admit it to themselves. This is stigma.

This week then is a good time for me to say this, at least: mental illness is not an individual problem. It is always manifested in the individual, yes, but reflects more on the family, the society and the culture at large. No wonder we’ve washed our hands of the emotionally vulnerable – which family wants to take responsibility for being a part (or whole) of the reason that their loved one is mentally ill? Which culture will admit that their norms are causing people to lose their emotional well-being?

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No one wants to admit their part, and certainly none of these institutions want to change and take on the responsibility and do their bit in actively preventing it (not even our government; but that’s a discussion for another time).

There is sometimes the argument that it is our genes that cause mental illness, and that, therefore, nothing can be done about it. People with mental illness are incurable bad eggs. The gene theory is only partly true (the bit about predisposition, not the bad egg business). Certain genes do predispose us to mental illness – this is the nature argument (this is almost entirely true for genetic mental concerns like Autism, though it’s still not the person’s fault).

The precipitation of a lot of mental illnesses is brought on by nurture – the other side of the debate which talks of how our family and societal environments determine our future. Even mental retardation (as the clinical term goes) can actually be caused, let alone precipitated, by the familial setting. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study has shown that those who suffer from adversity in childhood such as witnessing fights at home, or having mentally ill parents, or negligent parents, are thousands of times more likely to develop mental and physical illness in their adult years.

Globally, India is defined as a collectivist culture: we’re associated with strong familial and societal ties. We have countless relatives and we know all their names, and contribute to all the decisions in their lives. If this is true, how are we not taking responsibility for their ill health?

Are we so weak as a culture that we prefer to abandon and blame our mentally ill, rather than take responsibility for our part in causing their (and frankly, even our own) misery? Are we so irresponsible that we have social institutions that can’t care for someone with a mental illness?

And have we become so apathetic that we don’t understand that this can happen to us?

One in three people are likely to have mental illness in their lives. This statistic is moving towards one in two. What are you willing to bet that it won’t be you for sure? If it’s not you, it’s definitely going to be someone you love.

Take responsibility. Get curious. Learn about mental health and illness. If you’re reading this and believe yourself to be in good mental health, then it falls on you to be there for someone who isn’t. If we accept that we are a part of the cause, then we’ll come that much closer to accepting and helping those we love. If you’re reading this and need help, go get it. It’s okay, and it will be okay.

(This story first appeared in The Shrinking Couch.)

Writer

Nivida Chandra Nivida Chandra @nividachandra

Editor at The Shrinking Couch, PhD Scholar at IIT Delhi.

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