Note: This post may get me in trouble at home (notwithstanding that possibility, the post needs to be written).
My girlfriend’s father is a thoughtful, generous guy. I have celebrated countless holiday with him, exchanging gifts and laughs. I genuinely enjoy his company–even when he shakes his head in disbelief at my fervent Democratic positions.
Not surprisingly, Bob is active in his community; he has specifically volunteered for the Salvation Army. Serving meals to the indigent, Bob interacts with the less fortunate during his weekly volunteers shifts. When asked to describe his Salvation Army clients, Bob will, on occasion, reference their mental health.
Or lack thereof.
“They are mentally ill,” he has stated to me unequivocally. In his tone, there is no disparagement or condescension–just a factual acknowledgment of his clients’ mental health. Underlying his seemingly innocuous comment, there is an implicit assumption: mental health looks a certain way. It is the disheveled panhandler dependent on social services (and, incidentally, not the writer/lawyer dating his daughter).
And, at some level, Bob’s assumption may be accurate. Among the Salvation Army clientele, it is reasonable to assume that a percentage of food pantry recipients battle mental health issues. Bob’s presumption is fair–even valid.
But it is also inaccurate.
You see, we–inadvertently or otherwise–stereotype what mental illness looks like. It is the haggard beggar pleading for spare change; it is the wild-eyed woman hysterically shrieking on the street corner. It is averting eye contact and walking to the other side with your hands in your pocket–removing yourself from the mental health “danger.”
But here’s some real talk: mental health illness doesn’t look or dress a certain way.
I should know; I am mentally ill. And with a sharp button down and creased khakis, I would fit in comfortably at your local law firm. I might even advise you on your will–if you ask nicely.
It is tempting–too tempting–to shoehorn mental illness into a narrow box. And, personally speaking, I understand that temptation. When we witness something uncomfortable–even bizarre (insert wild-eyed woman shrieking on street corner), we want to explain her irrational behavior in an easy to digest way.
Insert mental health.
But as we pigeonhole mental health into a narrow, self-serving box, we perpetuate an unfounded (and unwarranted) stereotype: The average mental health consumer is not an incoherent man babbling on the street corner.
A more accurate representation of the 44 million strong: the grim worker silently struggling through an avalanche of depressive/anxious thoughts. Or the college friend masking her depressive symptoms with a casual “I’m fine”–notwithstanding the three classes she missed this week. Or your humble writer redirecting his attention following the latest flurry of OCD thoughts.
Mental health is more nuanced than its pre-packaged, widely consumed stereotypes (the news media–with its conflation of violence and mental health–deserves a dishonorable mention). In this vein, it is time that we discuss mental health in an objective, non-judgmental way–one that reflects its pervasiveness within all socio-demographic groups (even if my girlfriend does relegate me to the couch for a couple of days).