September 28, 2013

Talking About Mental Illness

Yi Wei Lim, yiweilim, talking about mental illness, mental illness, vincent van gogh, van gogh, sorrowing old man, vincent van gogh old man with head in hands, van gogh old man with head in hands, depression, grief, painting
Sorrowing Old Man ('At Eternity's Gate'), oil on canvas. Vincent van Gogh, 1890.

Mental Illness Awareness Week will arrive in the US next week. Established in 1990 by Congress in recognition of the efforts of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Illness Awareness Week is an occasion for mental health organisations and advocates to educate and reach out to the community through art/music events, health fairs, and benefit runs among others. 

I searched to see if Hong Kong had an equivalent programme in October but have yet to find any besides the annual Mental Health Month campaign. So I decided to write a little here... I think that talking about mental illness is important, even more so in Asia, where mental illness still carries fear and stigma. When we read about mental illness in the news, it's usually because a tragedy has occurred, for example, the Colorado shootings in 2012 by James Holmes, after which Holmes' mental state was immediately questioned. Words like "bipolar" or "schizophrenia" in the media are infused with fear by association with "violence" and "a risk to themselves and society" among others. In more primitive societies where psychiatry has yet to reach, mentally ill people are deemed as "possessed" and often excluded from society. (On the other hand, there is the anti-psychiatry movement; while not blindly following your doctor's orders and always being aware of your treatments is great, going after an entire field of medicine is a bit extreme.)

Mental illness affects us all
However, mental illness isn't limited to the man talking to himself on the street. It can happen to anyone - chances are that you might be struggling with mental illness yourself, or know someone who does. Understanding mental illness can be tricky because we can't see the illness unlike physical illnesses such as having a fever or asthma. It's not easy to explain sudden personality changes and certain behaviours that occur in those suffering from mental illness. Besides that, the causes of mental illness have yet to be pinpointed to exact physiological or environmental factors and genes. However, we need to realise that mental illness is a disease of the brain, instead of a disease of character. Then, we can create safe spaces for those suffering from mental illness to talk and seek help.

What we can do 
Yi Wei Lim, yiweilim, talking about mental illness, mental illness, mental health, mental illness awareness week, mental health awareness week, getting help

I think Healthy Place's Natasha Tracy has two great articles on how to initiate dialogue on mental illness if you are a patient or know someone who is. Natasha's blog deals mainly with bipolar disorder but these pointers are undoubtedly helpful:

This is a concise and useful article by Stephen Altrogge of Sovereign Grace Church Indiana for those suffering from mental illness and Christian ministries in dealing with mental illness: The Blazing Center: Let’s Talk About Mental Illness

On an end note, if you're based in Hong Kong and are struggling with mental illness, or even severe grief or depression, please seek help from the links below. I know that Hong Kong is a speed-crazy place, and slowing down to get help might seem counter-productive to the ten thousand things we have to do in a space of 24 hours, but I encourage you to take care of yourself first. You are not alone, and you CAN get better.

Images: here, here.

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