1 out of 4 people in our country lives with a diagnosable mental health or substance use disorder. That's 25% of the population in the United States. For something we know is extraordinarily common, we are still far too quiet, far too stigmatizing and falling far too short of adequately supporting one another.
When I think of how common mental illness and substance use disorders are in relation to the secrecy, shame and silent suffering that often accompanies them for many individuals and families, I find the following analogy to be helpful:
A few years ago, my roommate and I experienced a wicked case of bedbugs. While the infestation rate in my city has gone up over the past few years, it was something that I never thought I would experience. 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 are dirty. As the experience unfolded, I felt ashamed and didn't want to tell anybody out of fear of judgment. Anybody who has experienced a case of the bedbugs knows the 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 to do and I can imagine how many individuals find themselves unable to overcome the suffocating fear of judgment and instead suffer in silence. For me, the difficulties I was experiencing and the need for support were extreme 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 far less judgmental than I had feared and instead of great help and support which in turn eased my stressors 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 also found that for every single person I talked to, either they themselves or somebody they know had experienced bedbugs as well! Many of these folks would express how fear of judgment and internalized stigma had prevented them from sharing openly about it, and they welcomed my candor and willingness to do so. In our conversations, a space was created for shared experience that led to mutual support, an ability to find healing humor in the whole thing and a sense of unity. I recognized the power of shattering secrecy and just engaging in the conversation.
Just like my experience with the common occurrence of bed bugs in my city, talking openly about the common occurrence of mental illness and substance use disorder can serve as a powerful vehicle for giving and receiving support, sharing knowledge and resources, alleviating the paralyzing feeling of aloneness, normalizing and demystifying the experience and bringing us all together. With 1 out of 4 people in our country living with a diagnosable mental illness or substance use disorder, it is time we all become more willing to engage in the conversation. If it's not you, then it's somebody you know, and there is great healing to be had in just being willing to talk about it.