Lately, there seems to be an increased recognition of mental illness. While the stigma surrounding it remains it seems that more and more people are recognising it as a part of our society where in the past it had been banished completely to the margins. While this move seems important, I think it also might finally raise a question which I would greatly like to see asked. What is mental illness and do any of us make it through life without experiencing it? In the past, and still largely today mental illness seems to exist in our imaginations much like chronic diseases or serious injuries. Some have the bad luck to be born with them or come down with them at some point and must live with them from there on in. Those of us who have not been diagnosed have luckily been spared.
This way of imagining mental health stems largely from how it was imagined by the clinicians that first studied it. Health clinicians have themselves come a long way in their thinking as has society as a whole. We now see mental illness as something that may come and go in life -some people’s lives that is. The next shift I would like to see is towards thinking in terms of distress and a recognition of its place in all our lives.
We all feel distressed at times. It may manifest as anxiety or depression, it may feel like doubt or nagging uncertainty, it may feel like nervousness or boredom. It may seem to have a clear cause or appear to come out of nowhere. These feelings, while they may seem uncomfortable or even excruciating at times are no less than the recognition of our own humanity, they are the language of our body and this is what the story of our life is written in.
As speaking about mental illness becomes more common my hope is that these stories will come out and we will become more fluent in this language. As they do so in detail, I believe we will begin to see patterns emerge, patterns which will perhaps seem more familiar than we might have thought. If we allow it to this can also feed into our awareness of ourselves and a better understanding of what our own bodies are telling us about our own lives. While this may at first be frightening my hope is that we may more easily allow an awareness of how our life and our story has affected us and just as importantly the strength we have shown in struggling with it.
As a counsellor, I do not feel able or entitled to change anyone’s story. What I do believe I can do is facilitate a client’s fuller awareness of it and perhaps to again feel like its hero -whatever chapter they find themselves in.