Is Mental Illness an Excuse?

What do you think when you hear that someone you know has depression and has been unemployed for years, or because of social anxiety doesn’t date, or was abused as a child and has PTSD, or has OCD and it makes it difficult for them at school?

Be honest. Do you ever think that that person just isn’t trying hard enough? Do you ever think they are just using their mental illness as an excuse?

Do some people with mental illness use their illness as an excuse to not try at all or to not do difficult things? Absolutely.

But consider these other questions: Do some teens who engage in sex contract STIs? Do some college jocks rape women? Do some businessmen engage in shady transactions? Are some poor people drug addicts? Are some rich people completely selfish? Do some parents abuse their children? Are some people in Africa starving?

The answer to all of these is also yes, absolutely. But its important in these cases as well as the case of mental illness to pay attention to the qualifier “some.” Some means not all.

Some people who live in Africa are richer than you or me. Some rich people are extremely generous and selfless. We can’t mistrust every businessman, the world wouldn’t work. We can’t assume all parents abuse their kids and send DCFS to check on all of them.

And we can’t assume that all people with mental illness are not trying hard enough. Assumptions and stigmas need to stop.

Every person with mental illness that I have met is a hero. They are doing excruciatingly painful things, exerting all their strength, despite the extreme difficulty their illness causes.

Their efforts to do the best they possibly can will probably never be fully recognized by others because so much of the work and effort happen on the inside where others can’t see.

The things that mental illness makes difficult for them are things that most people are able to take for granted. If you don’t have depression, you don’t know what effort it takes someone with depression to get up out of bed and get ready for the day. If you don’t have social anxiety you don’t know how painful it is to checkout at the store. If you don’t have PTSD you don’t know how exhausting it is to stay at work or school when you hear, see, or smell something that reminds you of the traumatic experience that threw off your brain’s regular pattern of functioning. If you don’t have OCD you don’t know what its like to agonize whether or not the locked door you are staring at is really locked.

But just because you don’t understand doesn’t mean you can’t believe.

Just as we shouldn’t disbelieve every girl or woman who says she was sexually assaulted because some lie about it, we shouldn’t disbelieve people with mental illness by assuming they are not trying hard enough to manage and overcome their illness.

I know, as someone with mental illness, that nothing is more motivating or gives me more strength to do what I need to do than when someone believes in me, trusts me, and seeks to understand what I’m going through. Telling me I’m not trying hard enough just feels like condemnation and sucks all the energy and hope out of me. It makes me feel like it is my character, rather than my illness, that is wrong with me, and that makes me lose hope.

Please, just try to believe your loved one with mental illness really is trying their very best, giving their best effort, doing all they can. You may not be seeing immediate results. It may seem like they’re not doing anything. But give them the benefit of the doubt. More than likely they are expending all the effort they can.

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