If Mental Illness Were Physical

It’s been a weird week. I don’t think I have encountered so many people who think that mental illness is a choice or decisions for a long time, and I even dumped Facebook. One conversation has stood out. It was with a student in the psychology class I taught discussing how a coworker was tasked with taking care of a small task, had a panic attack, and stood in the workplace crying. She couldn’t understand why the coworker just couldn’t do the job being asked of them. It’s a choice, right?

The student did make some valid points. She feels we should all do our best to be the best person we can be. We should be the best citizen we should be, and be a positive force in the world. I am good with that, and I can agree. In essence, the student believes that every behavior is a choice, and we should make right choices.

My question was this:
If someone has a broken leg they won’t run very fast. In fact, they won’t even try to run fast. It’s a decision, they know how to, if they really wanted to they could, but they don’t. Why not?
The answer is because there is a great deal of pain involved. It’s still a behavior. If they wanted to, and tried really hard, they could do it. It would hurt, but they could do it. It’s the same for people with mental disorders. If we take this line of thinking one step  further, Usain Bolt could tell me that all I need to do is move my legs a little faster. Leg speed is a choice right? Just go faster. Go on, it’s a decision.

Here are the three takeaways for today:

1 – Many times the behaviors or a mental illness are a choice. But so is choosing not whether or not to run with a broken leg.

2 – We can all make the decision to be the best we can. But everyone has a different ‘best’. Usain Bolt’s personal best is under 10 seconds. No matter how much I choose for my legs to go faster, that just isn’t happening for me.

3 – It may not be visible, but there is a measurable and physical activity occurring in someone’s brain. Whether it is damage to the brain, or an imbalance, there is something happening. Just like the broken leg, except we can’t see it.

It seems we are sadly some way from being a society where mental illness is not given the same respect and understanding as physical sickness or pain. However, while people are still making the choice to be slow and clunky as they move around with a broken leg, we have some hope of helping people understand that behaviors aren’t always a choice.

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