Contrary to popular belief, depression and other mental illnesses are not something you experience alone.
Oh no. Trust me when I say, your family, your friends, anyone who ever loved you feels it. They feel it with you, and they struggle with the fact that they cannot pull it out of your head so they can fight it with you.
This is why, in a study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, about 60% of participant caregivers developed a depressive and/or anxiety disorder within 24 months of caregiving.
But I think that might have to do with our Western individualism. We believe that the power is only within the individual to solve their own problems. We collectively ignore the importance of the community.
This is described in my favorite Ted Talk to date, “Depression: The Secret We Share” by Andrew Solomon:
“And he said, “But we’ve had a lot of trouble with Western mental health workers, especially the ones who came right after the genocide.”
I said, “What kind of trouble did you have?”
And he said, “Well, they would do this bizarre thing. They didn’t take people out in the sunshine where you begin to feel better. They didn’t include drumming or music to get people’s blood going. They didn’t involve the whole community. They didn’t externalize the depression as an invasive spirit. Instead what they did was they took people one at a time into dingy little rooms and had them talk for an hour about bad things that had happened to them.”
While these rituals of “exorcising” the individual became harmful in many cases, the idea of the “spirit” being lifted out of the individual to be dealt with by the community is a powerful image.
What I believe we must do, as a culture, is to marry the idea of the individual within the context of the community. You cannot, I repeat, CANNOT defeat or cope with a mental illness on your own. The burden must be borne also by those who love and care for you.
The saddest thing I have seen in my life is being in a mental health facility and seeing the longterm patients. The story is usually the same. They have no family and no friends.
Those who make it out and enter into recovery in the outside world, do so because they have support, people who love them and share the burden with them.
This is a powerful realization. Because this tells us there is something we CAN do for our loved ones who suffer from mental illness.
We can love them. We can support them. We can be sure they are not alone in the world. We can refuse to let them go quietly into that dark night. We can tug on their lifeline and rip them out of the void, insisting they matter, becoming the antithesis to their despair.
When the individual gives out, the community rushes in and bears them up in song. We surround them with reminders of who they are, why they matter, that we are happy they exist, that their place is here with us.
We surround them with life and all that makes it joyous.
It is natural for a mentally ill person to isolate themselves. It must become just as natural for the community to recognize this and pull them back in with welcome.
Individualism is a powerful ideology. It puts the intrinsic value on every human life.
But it is also an incomplete ideology. We must, we must stress the importance of community care and community responsibility. Especially when it comes to mental health.