Earlier this week, my mother called to ask if I’d heard about the serial killer in Ohio. My entire family has made peace with my morbid interest in true crime and murderers. We talked for a few minutes about the body count and his possible motivations and other prolific serial killers from the last few decades. The conversation went well until she said something that twisted my gut.
“The government needs to get rid of all these crazy folk,” she huffed through the phone. “It’s a danger to society to have people like that walking around.”
Obviously, a serial killer is dangerous for society. As fascinating as I find them, you won’t see me advocating for their right to kill. Anyone who has committed over sixty murders is not someone I plan to invite over for dinner.
But why are we so quick to assume evil is “crazy?”
I studied psychology before English. Many of my characters are neuroatypical. It should come as no surprise that I have the deepest sympathies for mental health issues. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my life. I’ve volunteered for crisis hotlines and met many wonderful souls diagnosed with an array of afflictions. To my knowledge, not a single one of them ever harmed another person. In fact, many suffered from self-harm and eating disorders. Some developed drug or alcohol addictions to numb the emotional pain. They posed no threat to anybody but themselves.
I’m not saying mass shooters or serial killers can’t suffer from mental disturbances. I’m sure some of them do. But most individuals who live with a psychiatric illness are much more like you and me than Dylann Roof or Samuel Little.
According to the NIMH, one in five Americans suffers from a mental illness at some point in their lives. 20% of our population. Depression and anxiety are the most common culprits, but bipolar disorder and mood disorders aren’t far behind. Extreme stress has caused temporary psychosis in some patients. Almost 15% of new mothers suffer from postpartum depression. Mental illness is not rare in our culture. But we shame those who suffer from it into silence.
I remember trying to help my parents understand my depression as a teen. They’d advise me I needed to find the grit to “get over it,” or suggest I spend more time outside. When my anxiety flared up, and I’d have panic attacks in unfamiliar situations, they’d tell me I’d never last in the real world if I didn’t “get it together.” Over a decade later, I still live with occasional bouts of anxiety and depression. All the exercise and sunshine in the world can’t pull me out of the dark places my mind goes sometimes. But, that’s okay. My brain has worked this way long enough for me to know that this, too, shall pass. I’ve learned a lot about proper emotional hygiene and meditation, and I get by just fine these days.
Maybe you’re one of the one in five people living with a mental illness. If so, you’re not “crazy.” You’re not broken or damaged, or any less worthy of love and respect. You are not invisible, and you are not alone. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking support for your symptoms.
If you fell down a flight of stairs and broke your leg, chances are you’d head to the hospital and seek help without a second thought. But when we notice something amiss with our mental health, how often do we spring into action to address it? We shove the feelings away or bury them under a mountain of distractions. We hide our symptoms for fear of judgment or worrying those we care about. We tell ourselves to “get over it” or that it’d be “weak” to seek guidance. But much in the same way we need medical help to mend a broken bone or an infection, there is no shame in pursuing professional help for emotional wounds.
There is no magic pill or cure for mental illness. I won’t promise you that a walk outside or a trip to the therapist will change your entire outlook on life or ease your symptoms. I’ll only promise you’re not alone on this journey, and it CAN get better. You wouldn’t ignore a broken leg. Treat a broken spirit with the same sympathy.
For the one in five people who fight an invisible war inside their own minds each day, you have my utmost respect and sympathy. It isn’t “in your head,” and you aren’t crazy. There are days it’s a struggle to leave the bed, and the fact that you get up and do it anyway takes courage and strength. Celebrate those small victories, even if they feel insignificant. Pat yourself on the back the days you remember to eat three meals but don’t beat yourself up the days you don’t. Show yourself the same compassion you’d show a loved one struggling with an illness. Forgive yourself for the sins of your past and find reasons to look forward to the future. Give yourself as much time as you need to heal. And, if you need help, reach out for it.
There’s a lot we don’t understand yet about mental illness. What we do know is that mental illnesses are not character defects, and they’re nobody’s “fault.” They can occur for a variety of reasons, including trauma and genetics. The symptoms can vary in severity and disruptiveness, and no two people are the same. They have nothing to do with willpower, or not being “strong enough.” It’s an illness like any other, even if the symptoms aren’t visible from the outside.
If you suffer from a mental illness, please know that you are not your illness or the negative stereotypes around it. You are as beautiful and unique as any other soul on this planet. Surround yourself with allies and ignore the naysayers. Please remember to laugh and love and appreciate the little things around you. Reach out for support when you need it. Monitor your stress levels. Take a mental health day if you find yourself close to burnout. Show kindness to others, but save some for yourself.
And hey, if you’re “crazy,” take comfort in knowing some of the most creative and innovative minds in history were, too. I’m passionate about reading and writing fiction that features characters with mental illnesses because those stories matter just as much as any others. And even if you feel alone or that nasty voice in the back of your mind whispers that no one cares, I do. I care, and I’m so grateful you’re still here to tell your story.
Depression Among Women | Depression | Reproductive Health | CDC. (2017, December 13). Retrieved July 3, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/depression/index.htm
NAMI. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers