March is Self Harm Awareness Month, but I also want to broaden it to general mental health awareness.
“Lying is an elementary means of self defense.” -Susan Sontag
“Lying is not only a defense mechanism; it’s also a coping mechanism and a survival technique.” – Monica Raymund
“Lying is easy, but it’s lonely.” – Victoria Schwab
For every one quote supporting, or sympathizing with, lying, there are 10 phrases against it. (That’s a lie–I don’t know the real numbers). From the time you’re able to say one word, often just “mama” or “dada”, words that can hardly even be considered part of a civilized language, you’re told not to tell lies. But then you get a bit older, and have a few more words to say, and suddenly it was better to lie and say that Grandma doesn’t look as old and wrinkly as she actually does. So, you learn that there are actually quite a few lies in the world, that there are “white lies” and “necessary lies” and every type other than “bad” lies. And then it gets a lot more complicated.
Because people like lies. They don’t like to know they’re being lied to, but most people are happy to accept a phrase that is general enough to be sort of true, but really not. Especially when the truth is far less palatable to the conscience. People like the freedom lies can provide, for both parties–the liar gets to go on with their life with inquiries have been satisfied, and the lie-ee gets to go on with their life free of any blame or guilt by association. But, of course, more often than not, this temporary relief ends up making you worse off later on.
Forgive me for becoming a bit dramatic and “basic girl with the anchor tattoo” here (although I don’t have an anchor tattoo), but now we come to mental health. About 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year; about 1 in 5 youth 13-18 years old experiences a severe mental disorder at some time in their life. So, there they are. Issues that we can’t see, that we don’t want to see. You can lie to anyone who asks how you’re doing (the “I’m fine” cliche is there for a reason), you can paint on a smile if someone starts to say that you seem down. All of a sudden, you’re lying left and right, and you don’t even remember when it started, or when you decided to be a “liar”. But this doesn’t make you a bad person, in my opinion at least. Is it not kinder to spare others the “burden” of your internal problems?
Lying becomes self defense, because if you give this thing in your mind that drags you down and pulls small lies out of your throat as smoothly and as normally as truths, then others will name it too. And who knows how that will end up turning out. Even though the stigma may slowly be changing, mental health is still shameful. If not by society, then by the individual afflicted–you’re ashamed to admit a weakness, a flaw, an inexcusable unhappiness despite having a house and bed and food which, as we’re all reminded of as children, is not what the children in Africa have.
Then it’s how you cope. If people don’t know, continue to treat you normally, then nothing really changes, right? You won’t be labelled a basket case, an emo, a drama queen, a hazard. If you say it’s not there enough times, it’ll go away. If you say you’re happy and fine enough, then you’ll believe it eventually.
And then it’s lonely. Because you succeeded: no one knows. Sure, some might be suspicious, but they don’t have anything concrete, either because you didn’t let enough hints slip through your precarious defenses or because they are naturally partially blind and simply don’t allow themselves to see your slip-ups for what they are.
This is the vicious cycle that gave birth to stigma, unawareness, and lack of effort or recognition of services. It is so unbelievably hard to talk about your issue without even a shred of falsehood, the vulnerability and self-destruction so terrifying that it’s no surprise mental health and its services are often a shit show (pardon my French). And it hits us, hard. Of the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who had a substance abuse problem, over half simultaneously had a mental illness. 70% of kids in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental health condition.
And yet, despite the overwhelming presence of these issues, the rates at which people come forward and try to seek help are sad. The rates at which people get fully treated are depressing all by themselves. Only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in a year. Over a third of students with a mental health condition age 14 and older who are served by special education drop out—the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
And what happens to the millions of adults and children who don’t receive services? This isn’t a scrape that goes away if you put a band-aid on it long enough. This is hospitalization, and death. Sometimes slowly fading away in a hospital, sometimes so fast that loved ones are left in shock; sometimes they are saved, at the last possible moment, but more often they’re not. Mood disorders are the 3rd most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for people aged 18–44. Suicide is the 10th highest cause of death in the U.S., the 3rd for youth aged 10–24, and the 2nd for youth aged 15–24. This means that they ended their lives before graduating college, many before even finishing high school. Not only is it a tragic loss of life, it’s a preventable loss of life.
The average time between the onset of symptoms and any intervention is 8-10 years. Not days, not even months. Years. So, by the time someone is telling you that they’re miserable, they’ve waited years to tell you this. It’s taken a long time to build up that carefully maintained wall of lies, and even longer to screw up the courage to tear it down themselves.
It’s not anyone’s fault that this happened, or that it continues to happen. But it is our fault if we do nothing. If we allow our friends, family members, neighbors, classmates, colleagues, and fellow humans suffer silently, if we allow them to lie, to feel that they need to protect themselves. People with mental health disorders often assist in building their own prisons, and it is true that it can be extremely hard to help someone who doesn’t yet want to be helped. We must continue to tear down the stigma, not let the people we love lie and hurt themselves, and not let ourselves be lured into the attractive naivete of lies. We must be diligent, and we must care enough about the people we love to be willing to see through the veil.