I don’t know about you but when I drive or walk down the streets in the city I live in , I tend to look at people’s eyes and wonder about their history and what is going on in their minds. Nowadays, I don’t have to wonder much because I can see it written boldly on their faces- despair, hopelessness, fear and despondency. More often than I care to acknowledge, I am seeing more and more cases of mentally unstable people on our streets. Sometimes, they attract attention by talking loudly to themselves for all to hear, at other times they are silent but you can tell from their gait and mannerism that all is not well with them. However, it will be foolhardy to think that only those on the streets have some form of mental illness, there are so many others who don’t look the part we have come to associate with mental illness, who seemingly have everything going on for them ( or so we think) but who are battling with their own demons.
Mental illness has been defined as a brain based condition that affects thinking, emotions and behaviors. The brains of people afflicted changes in a way in which they are unable to think, feel , interact or act in the ways that are generally accepted in the society. It is said that there are over 200 conditions that qualify as mental illness and the list includes ADHD, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia, anxiety and eating disorders and even some sexual behaviors.
This definition which is by no means conclusive contradicts the generally accepted view propagated in our society by folklore and Nollywood that Mental illness is tantamount to insanity and is as a result of curses placed on individuals because of what they did or did not do. It is medically proven that mental illness may be due to several factors such as inherited traits, chemical imbalance in the body, addictions and abuse of hard drug substances, psychological factors – stress, trauma, and environmental exposures before birth- this is more so especially where the mother uses drugs or alcohol. It is also becoming increasingly accepted that it can afflict people of all ages, races and religion and a close or working relationship with God doesn’t necessarily make us immune to it.
The mentally ill have always been with us, but with the breakdown of our familial and social systems, the worsening economic realities, the loss of loved ones due to preventable and avoidable sickness, the global pandemic, the vitriol we are daily exposed to especially in the social media space, people who are susceptible and vulnerable to mental illness are increasingly finding that there are no safe places for them and already every society is seeing an increase in mental health issues.
Mental illness has always frightened me not necessarily because of any danger directed to my person but because I often don’t know how to relate with people especially when they are going through an episode. I like certainty and love to be in control of my surroundings and environment and to know that things can change in a twinkle of an eye (though there would have been a buildup unbeknownst to me) is very unsettling for me. The main reason I fear it though is having to see my loved one or anyone for that matter in a state of helplessness and vulnerability. I shudder just thinking of what goes through their minds when they return to a more conscious state, how they may be ashamed, embarrassed and afraid for themselves and their loved ones. For example I consider people living with Dementia as living though dead because I can’t seem to fathom how a person cannot remember their loved ones and the things that once gave them joy, satisfaction and happiness.
Mental illness always has symptoms but a lot of times we don’t see it largely because it’s something that happens to someone else and not to us or our loved ones but mostly because they are common and varied and overlap with symptoms of other illness. But even when we acknowledge the symptoms which include mood swings, excessive fear or anxiety, withdrawal from friends, family and social interactions, an exaggerated sense of high or low self-worth , impulsive actions, bad sleeping or eating patterns, weight loss etc we most often do not do anything about them because we refuse to accept the situation until it unfortunately becomes rather obvious and/or life threatening.
Our society is cruel to people who suffer from or have loved ones who have mental illness, we allude to sins that they may have committed, we trace their history to find generational curses as if we have the details of all their fore-bearers did, we decry their parenting methods and insist that they are the culprits for their behavior. We state boldly that Christians cannot suffer from depression or mental illness yet we see so many Christians being afflicted.
I know of couples that have had to deal with mental illness in their spouses, parents that have found themselves dealing with mental illness or the aftermath of it, children that are unable to recognize their once strong, proud, beautiful parents. Spouses, Parents and children that have left the home during an episode never to be seen again leaving their loved ones in a state of uncertainty as to their condition. For most people in this situation especially parents, the feelings are those of failure, shame and embarrassment and when one is a Christian it is more torturous as the church especially after many episodes of deliverance is likely to turn its back on us until it seems even God has abandoned us.
For those of us that have someone struggling with mental illness, the experts advice that we learn about the sickness, symptoms and treatment options, encourage and support the person to seek professional help and adhere to treatment, listen to them without second guessing them, dismissing or invalidating their feelings.
It so happens that sometimes, even though we are eager to support our loved one, they reject all overtures to help and in that situation we can only help them as much as they allow us although if we see that they are a danger to themselves or others we must allow the professionals to make the right choices for them.
It is heart wrenching to see our loved ones go through illness of any kind but as with physical illness care givers must know we cannot play God in the lives of our loved ones. It behoves us to take good care of ourselves, maintain our own support system, try as much as we can to live normally, take small breaks away from the person, set boundaries, distinguish the person from the sickness and know our limits. At no time should we be confrontational and if there is an inkling of danger of any kind we must immediately seek help.
There is a need to see mental illness as a sickness that affects the mind just as physical illness does the body and when we come to that realization we will be more careful with how we treat people and their loved ones dealing with it because we will acknowledge that anyone including us can be afflicted.