One of the biggest arguments that mental health advocates use is that illnesses of the brain should be treated exactly the same as those of any other organ. After all, the brain is exactly that – an organ. It’s just another part of the body, and that part gets sick, too. So why do we treat mental illness so differently?
Learning to treat my depression and anxiety as physical ailments instead of character flaws was one of the most important things I have ever done. I should not punish or dislike myself because of neurological imbalances that I can’t control. It’s not my fault that my serotonin levels are too low, and that my adrenaline can skyrocket with an impending anxiety attack.
But it is my fault if this makes me an asshole.
I have a few close friends who also experience mental illness (it really does seem like everyone is depressed nowadays). And in helping others with their struggles, I have gained some insight on how my own issues affect others. Sometimes, anxiety can turn people into real jerks. And it’s not their fault, because they’re sick, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re making other people feel really, really badly. Where do we draw the line?
A lot of times, I’ll feel too anxious to do my work. I can’t focus or think, but my mind is racing, and so I’ll sit and scroll through social media for an hour because it’s the only thing I can do without having a panic attack. But how is this different than messing about on the internet for an hour because I’m lazy? How can I call myself a hard working, motivated scholar when I can’t accomplish anything? Where do my mental illnesses end and I begin?
A lot of this comes from the nature of chronic illnesses themselves. I’ve felt this way since middle school. It has changed over time, sometimes getting better and other times getting worse, but it’s always been there. And having grown up with this, I have absolutely no concept of who I am without it. I grew up being told I was such a happy person, but how could I be a happy person who is literally depressed? Isn’t that the exact opposite of happy?
I think, especially in the medical/insurance world, it’s important to talk about mental health from an objective standpoint. Taking an SSRI is no different than taking a daily antihistamine, which I also have to do. But while I can skip work for an allergic reaction, I can’t call in sick for depression. I could stay home with terrible cramps, but I couldn’t stay home because I lost my will to get up.
If everything I do is dictated by my brain and neurochemistry, and these things are affected by an illness, then does the illness not contribute to who I am as a person? If my depression makes me lazy, then how is that different from me just being lazy in the first place?
Maybe the difference lies in choice. Staying in bed out of laziness is a decision, but doing it as a symptom of an illness is not. If I had a stomach flu and was too sick to get up, that wouldn’t be lazy. But it feels different when the illness is, by definition, all in my head. I could decide to ignore that feeling that nothing matters, that I don’t matter, and just get up. Letting it run my life feels like giving in, and it feels like I’m victimizing myself to absolve my own guilt. But I wouldn’t think that if I had the flu. I don’t think I’m lazy. But I don’t think I’m trying hard enough, either.