The brain is the only part of the body – when it becomes ill – that no one wants to talk about. Interestingly, this reminds me of the first year of settling into my prestigious high school in Jamaica and realizing the trepidation I felt at having to admit to my new friends that I was hungry on days when everyone felt that lunchtime would never come.
Instead of being able to compartmentalize the physiological need and see it for what it was in the moment, my teenage brain associated admitting that I was hungry with admitting to deprivation and scarcity, the parts of my home life that did not match the affluence of the students and the environment where I spent most of my week days.
Growing up in a community where it was generally understood that hungry children were a direct reflection of the credibility of their family to provide, I quickly (mis)learned to protect my integrity and that of my family by speaking less about this aspect of our lives and subconsciously generalized this lesson in all contexts.
Hunger and mental illness are not comparable in terms of the extent to which they affect our lives, yet it appears that the perceptions and realities that work to keep people locked into them are similar. As a child, my perception of hunger directly reflected my community’s perception of hunger, and it created an invisible but very present mould for how I approached the subject.
This is not far removed from the experience of persons with mental health challenges who learn over time to internalize society’s misconceptions to the point where some feel a debilitating fear to seek out and maintain treatment.
Yet the most rewarding aspects of my life so far have been the many hours spent in therapy, both as a patient and as a clinician. In both capacities, I’ve learned that the real heroes of any society aren’t those who, out of fear, live lives that reflect the biases of the populace, but rather those who, through mental health treatment, endure daily experiences of learning a new way to live and thrive outside the convenience of the status quo.
This remains: admitting to hunger in times of hunger is not evidence of a flawed person or upbringing; people in need of mental health treatment are incapable victims is a myth. As I grew older, I learned to write my own narrative about my physiological states and to relax the boundaries of communication about them. Perhaps, instead of waiting on society to change its mind about stigmatizing mental illness, it will require the efforts of the real experts in mental health – those with mental health challenges – to lead the charge in demystifying mental illness and rewrite the narrative.