KELLY BREVIG COLUMN: It could happen to anybody
On a subzero day several winters ago, I snapped on my cross-country skis and headed outside. I was determined not to let the brutal temperature dictate my agenda. Bundled in layers and wrapped with determination, I took to the ski trail. I wasn't prepared for the ice-covered hill. Coordination has never been my best friend, so when my skis left the groomed grooves in the trail, I panicked. My skis and legs contorted inhumanly, and I felt a snap as I went down. The trudge home was a bit of a blur. I got a ride to the emergency room. The doctor prescribed a brace, a pair of crutches, a week of rest, and direct orders not to put pressure on my knee. I healed, but there was residual damage; my ego was severely bruised. I was embarrassed that I fell, but never once did I feel judged for my skiing mishap. People saw the knee brace and collectively nodded their heads in understanding. They had been there, too. Some people even felt compelled to share their events of misfortune. I learned a lot about injuries and even saw a few scars from fellow enthusiasts. In short, I was made to feel at ease about my crutches and my clumsiness. Evidently, "it could have happened to anybody."
I wonder what would happen as a collective society, if we embraced this same mantra, "it could happen to anybody," when it comes to mental health. The hard reality is one person out of five will deal with depression in their lifetime. At any given time, one person out of 20 will be thinking about suicide. Anxiety disorders affect over 40 million adults in the United States each year. When it comes to talking about our mental health, we tend to fall short. There is a real fear in exposing these common conditions. Depression, anxiety, mental illness, mood disorders, learning disabilities, chemical addictions, can happen to anybody. Instead of having a knee brace and crutches as an indicator of pain, families are often left to struggle in silence and often not sure where to turn for help. It's not as easy to spot mental illness as it is to notice a limp.
Stigma is an ugly word and has hijacked our ability to talk about mental illness. Because we can't see a physical manifestation or a wound, we tend to dismiss and hide the pain. How do we change that? One of the best ways to do this is by not being afraid to open up to others. By openly sharing what is going on inside, we give permission for others to do the same. When we can talk about depression as a real struggle, give a name to anxiety, call out learning disorders, and identify mental illnesses, we take what was hidden and bring it into the light. The more we learn about each other, the better our responses will be in helping each other heal.
Another key to changing the stigma surrounding mental illness is to use terms carefully. It has become popular to call someone who is angry, "bipolar", "schizo" or "psychotic" and to use the term "panic attack" as a common verb. Not all people who are skinny are "anorexic." People with mental health issues are not "crazy." Not everyone who likes things a certain way is "OCD," and not all people who are sad are "depressed." We need to educate ourselves about these and other terms so that we can provide safety for those who are suffering when they do speak up. We need a shared understanding. When we chose to educate ourselves and others about mental illnesses, we will come to the common understanding that it "could happen to anybody."
Kelly Brevig is Suicide Educational Services Coordinator for Evergreen Youth & Family Services.