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People Just Don’t Understand Mental Illness.

The reason I wrote Black Mental Health Matters: The Ultimate Guide For Mental Health Awareness In The Black Community was because not many people understand mental health. And for mental illnesses to be as serious of an issue as it is, that is simply unacceptable.

I didn’t mention this to speak negatively about people who don’t know about mental illnesses but to highlight the severity of not knowing about something as vital as mental health. After all, we all (including myself) didn’t know about mental health at some point. But understanding it is a must.

It’s as crucial as understanding physical Illnesses or financial literacy. Let’s think about this: how wealthy can a person be with no financial intelligence? And most physically fit people are at least somewhat knowledgeable about exercising and eating the right foods.

Well, the same goes for mental health. You don’t become mentally healthy, just because. You have to actually have to do things conducive to mental wellness, such as practicing positive self-talk and minimizing contact with toxic people, and most importantly, learning about the signs of mental illness.

As a licensed therapist, I’ve studied mental illnesses for years, as diagnosing mental illness is a huge part of my job. I consider myself pretty knowledgable surrounding the subject. However, occasionally, the conversation of mental illness comes up outside of work. And usually, people don’t respond well to the idea of having a mental illness.

We’ve Got To Do A Better Job At Understanding Mental Illness

I recently had a conversation with a parent of a child I suspected of having attention deficit disorder (ADHD), as I noticed the child showing several symptoms. The parent instantly became protective of the child and even somewhat irritated at the mere suggestion of ADHD. As if the suggestion of ADHD was me questioning the child’s intellect.

The whole situation bothered me. It didn’t bother me because a parent felt the need to protect their child. It’s a parent’s duty to protect their child when they sense he or she is disrespected. It bothered me because the parent related ADHD to a lack of intelligence as if you can’t have ADHD and be smart simultaneously, which is a huge misunderstanding.

ADHD has two main sets of symptoms: inattention and hyperactivity, hence the name attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The inattention is mostly along the lines of having trouble focusing, making careless mistakes, and a short attention span. Which, by the way, has nothing to do with a person’s ability to comprehend and apply information.

People tend to confuse ADHD with learning disabilities, which often do exist simultaneously. But ADHD and learning disabilities are two separate mental disorders. A learning disability is along the lines of Dyslexia (reading letters and numbers backwards) or Dyscalculia (extreme difficulty solving basic math).

The hyperactivity part is the stereotypical ADHD behavior–the endless amounts of energy, bouncing off the walls and talking a mile a minute. People with these symptoms are usually seen as “problematic” in school and work settings.

And because of that “problematic” label, people tend to only notice the most severe cases of ADHD. For that very reason, like most mental illnesses, there’s a negative connotation associated with ADHD. Those who have more subtle symptoms, like inattentiveness usually go undiagnosed or undertreated.

The same could be said about depression. In Depression, the invisible illness, I wrote about how depression consists of ordinary behaviors that look a lot like laziness or an attitude problem. As a matter of fact, most mental illnesses look like ordinary behaviors because mental illness in itself is ordinary.

Mental Illness is Common as a Cold.

The only reason most of us don’t know how common mental illnesses are is that we are conditioned by society to only see extreme dysfunction as illness. Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of people who are extremely ill to the point that they’re completely detached from reality. But people who experience psychological disorders to that extent are a minority.

Most people with mental health issues have subtle symptoms; so subtle they don’t even recognize them within themselves; not because the pain of the symptoms is insignificant but because the symptoms themselves aren’t known to be associated with mental illness. People mistakenly view depression, anxiety, amongst many other mental illnesses as just going through a funk.

Most people wouldn’t believe me if I told them that everyone experiences mental illness at some point in their lives. The degree to which they experience it varies; nevertheless, they experience it [1]

Some mental illnesses, such as generalized anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder (often referred to simply as anxiety and depression, respectively), are just as common as typical sicknesses we’ve all had, like the flu or pink eye. The only difference is that people generally have a better understanding of physical ailments and are better equipped to intervene when they or someone else is ill. And for that very reason, mental illnesses are stigmatized while physical ailments are, for the most part, viewed by the general public as unnoteworthy.

We as a culture have little understanding when it comes to mental health. And that lack of understanding often precedes the stigma of mental illness. Imagine how different things would be if people really understood what a panic attack actually looks like. Or if the average person recognized depression when they saw it. Imagine how much more support schizophrenic people would receive if more people understood schizophrenic behavior as being ill rather than crazy, and actually treated those people with compassion rather than amusement, judgment, or frustration.

Imagine how many people would speak about their battles with mental illness if they knew the world was a safe space to talk about mental illness in the same way that it is to talk about cancer or heart disease.

We have to shift the narrative from viewing mental illness as a personality flaw, to seeing it as it really is. Mental health problems are something we ALL experience. It doesn’t make you weaker than the next person to have had these types of problems. It’s just that few people actually admit to having mental issues, and others simply don’t know they’ve had a mental issue, per se. They think they’re going through the typical ups and downs of life. And in a way they’re correct. Mental health issues are the typical ups and downs of life because mental and emotional problems are common problems.

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