Whether or not you are a comic book fan, I am sure that you have heard of Batman and The Joker.
I am a big fan, so I am extra excited for the stand-alone Joker movie that is coming out this fall. In the trailer for the new movie, there is a scene where the main character is writing jokes on a notepad. His handwriting starts to become more disorderly, more childlike. Instead of another joke, he proceeded to write this statement:
"The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don't."
Even with such increased awareness about mental health around the world, there is still such a huge stigma against it. Similar to the Joker's world, the experience of psychological disorder faces so much intolerance. We are stuck thinking that because someone is going through something that he or she has trouble dealing with or is experiencing life in a way that is not "common", that person is strange, somehow "lesser than", and unworthy of our compassion.
The stigma shows its ugly head in two polarized situations:
When someone's symptoms are publicly visible and make people feel uncomfortable
When someone's symptoms are not taken seriously and are brushed off
In both cases, the individual undergoing psychological distress is not offered any support or, more importantly, any compassion.
They are not shown any compassion because we humans are uncomfortable with anything that is unusual and defies our normal, overly routined existence.
We get trained to fear what we do not understand.
When we do not understand something, we find it strange. Something that is strange is unpredictable. We are fearful of unpredictable things or people because we do not know enough about those things or people for us to trust them. This lack of trust builds a wall between you and the other person, blocking the possibility of you offering positive support.
When that wall is up, we instead avoid the person altogether (#1) or we deflect the subject with detached responses like "It'll be okay" and "shake it off. You're allright" (#2).
Biases are obstacles
If some kind of compassion is established for the individual experiencing psychological distress, the next factor that dissuades a lot of us from supporting the person is the fact that it requires effort and energy that we are not used to using. Taking dedicated time to sit with the person and be present for whatever they are experiencing or wish to talk about is not an everyday activity unless you work in the mental health industry. As such, it takes extra push for a lot of people to be that support person.
This apprehension arises from our priorities. Priorities come from our biases.
When we feel like taking time to support someone that we had not scheduled into our day is arduous, it means that we would rather be doing something else.
If the other person is a friend, do we only care about them so much that emotional support beyond day-to-day interactions is way beyond your role as a friend?
Or do you care about this friend but you do not think mental health issues are real, valid, or serious enough to take the time to support?
We are all slaves to the biases we have learned over time, so you may very well have been taught at one point to avoid the topic of mental health issues, or to avoid your own when they arise, which informs how you deal with those of others.
The Inconvenient Truth
Spoiler Alert: WE ALL HAVE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES.
All of us.
We all do.
We all experience versions of emotional distress all the time in daily life.
Heavy sadness, grief, or shame = depression
Heightened stress or anxiety = panic
A tendency toward control and keeping things the way you want them = OCD
Ever done hard drugs? Congratulations, you distorted your reality, which is what people who experience schizophrenia go through.
Emotional distress becomes a diagnosable experience that warrants treatment when it disrupts daily functioning - like inhibiting one's ability to go to work or take care of themselves - or when its presentation poses either a psychological or physical threat to the individual or other people.
The Bottom Line
Severity of emotional distress varies throughout our lifetimes and is sparked by infinite kinds of triggers, but it is an unavoidable truth that we all experience what society deems as "mental health issues" all the time.
We are all equally susceptible to such issues anytime, any day, anywhere.
Yes, YOU, the one who is uncomfortable with your mom's bipolar mood, or YOU who are so sick of listening to your friend complain about their anxiety attacks and stress.
You do not need to be the primary support for that person by sitting and listening all the time, but helping them get the support they need is just as impactful.
All it takes is a little compassion.
When the time comes that you experience a more severe version of emotional distress and you want the support that others have asked of you, you are going to feel foolish for not giving them the compassion that you now wish to receive from them.
We are all in the same boat together. We all have the same foundational chemistry in our brains that are wired to strive for emotional stability.
This modern world presents challenges to that stability all day long, so not a single one of us is more protected from the effects than anyone else.