Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population lives with a diagnosable mental health challenge. That is 1 out of every 5 people in this country. For something we know is so extraordinarily common, we are still far too silent, far too ashamed and falling far too short of adequately supporting one another.
When I think of how common mental illnesses are in relation to the secrecy, shame and silent suffering that often accompanies them for many individuals and families, it reminds me of another experience I had in my life...
A few years ago, my roommate and I experienced a wicked case of bedbugs. While the infestation rate in my city had gone up in recent years, it was something that I never thought would happen to me. We kept our place pretty clean after all, and even though a bedbug infestation has nothing to do with cleanliness, I had internalized the stigma surrounding the idea that having bugs in your home meant that you were “dirty.”
As the whole experience unfolded, I felt ashamed and didn’t want to tell people out of fear of judgment. Anybody who has experienced a case of the bedbugs understands the extreme extent to which this impacts one’s life mentally, emotionally, physically and financially. Finding myself in the midst of a difficult time but afraid to share openly about it left me feeling alone and unable to reach out for support.
As the challenging experience unfolded, I found myself compelled to push past the fear and discuss what was happening in my life with those closest to me. This was not as easy thing for me to do, and I can only imagine how many individuals find themselves unable to overcome the suffocating fear of judgment and instead suffer in silence.
In my case, however, the difficulties I was experiencing and my need for support combined to be significant enough to push me over the barriers created by unwarranted stigma and shame. Once I started talking about what was happening, a couple of amazing things occurred:
First, I found that people were generally much less judgmental than I had feared and instead a source of great help and support. Talking to people about my bedbug challenge eased the stress I was experiencing and created an opening for guidance, knowledge of available resources and that feeling of being alone in my struggles to dissipate.
More profoundly, however, I found that for every single person I talked to, either they or somebody they knew had also experienced a case of bedbugs! Many of these folks would disclose how internalized stigma and fear of judgment had prevented them from sharing openly about it. They warmly welcomed my candor and willingness to be so open.
It was in these conversations that a space was created for sharing of experiences, and that space led to mutual support, an ability to find healing humor in the whole thing and a sense of unity. I immediately recognized the immense power contained in simply shattering secrecy and engaging in the conversation.
Just like my experience with my city’s common occurrence of bedbugs, talking openly about the common occurrence of mental illness has extraordinary benefits. The conversation can serve as a powerful vehicle for giving and receiving support, sharing knowledge and resources, alleviating the paralyzing feeling of being alone, normalizing and demystifying the experience of mental illness and bringing us all a little closer together. With 1 out of 5 people in our country living with a diagnosable mental illness, it is time we all become a bit more willing to engage in the conversation.
Just like I learned with bedbugs, the reality is this: if it’s not you that has experienced a mental illness, then it’s somebody you know... and there is great healing to be had in us all just being willing to talk about it.