Have you ever had vague feelings of concern about a loved one in terms of their mental health or stability?
Maybe they simply seem not themselves, or their behavior has changed recently, or their mood has become either unusually dispirited or inexplicably jubilant? Either way, you sense that something’s not right. What do you do?
Or have you yourself ever battled with mental distress, anxiety, depression, ruminating thoughts, panic attacks, an eating disorder, delusions, hallucinations, or any other symptoms of mental illness?
If so, you’re not alone. Millions and millions of people experience a mental health problem of some type at any time, and studies show that about one in three of us will do so sometime during the course of our lives.
Coping with any mental illness is extremely challenging—but did you know that a majority of people with a mental illness go undiagnosed and therefore untreated for an average of ten years or more? The impact of an undiagnosed mental illness can put an extremely heavy burden on them and their families.
What explains this unacceptable delay in getting a diagnosis and receiving effective treatment?
Several factors intervene. First, the stigma surrounding mental illness is still very much alive. People often refuse to speak about mental illness at all, or they only whisper about it, or worse still, joke about it. We all have a responsibility to improve the situation. That’s why I—as a person recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder—am on a mission to bust the myths around mental illness, and to urge everyone to accept that people with mental illnesses deserve to be respectfully diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. This would save incalculable suffering and loss of human potential, both on the part of those of us with mental illnesses and our long-suffering loved ones and caregivers.
Second, the delay in being diagnosed and treated often results from the fact that the affected person may be in denial about their symptoms, the extent of their suffering, and the huge impact it has on their ability to function at home, school, work, socially, and so on. “Just leave me alone; I’ll be okay.” Sadly, for many, they won’t be okay. For example, the suicide rate for people like me with bipolar disorder is between 10–20%, and between 25–50% attempt suicide at least once. The loved ones of affected people must therefore help them to navigate the mental health care system until they find suitable treatment.
Third, one of the main reasons for delayed diagnosis and treatment is that the family members and friends of the affected person may put their heads in the sand rather than confront the thorny—and stigmatized—problem of their loved one’s mental illness head-on. “This is just a phase; it will surely pass soon.” This reaction is especially common when the affected person is a youth, someone with wayward hormones who we expect to be “difficult” or “moody” or “mopey.” But there’s a gaping difference between a moody teenager and a youth in mental distress, not managing daily tasks, not functioning well at home, school or work. Please don’t delay seeking help for this person: a psychiatric illness left undiagnosed and untreated will almost certainly progress and become much more serious and therefore harder to treat.
Just as the Baha’i writings recommend that when we become physically ill we should seek the care of a competent physician, so the same applies in cases of mental illness.
“As Baha’u’llah has urged us to avail ourselves of the help of good physicians, Baha’is certainly are not only free to turn to psychiatry for assistance but should, when available, do so.” The mind, then, with all its aberrancies, may often favourably be influenced by scientifically trained persons. – From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, quoting Shoghi Effendi, to an individual Baha’i, April 6, 1976.
[Your effort to overcome illness] can include the counsel of wise and experienced physicians, including psychiatrists. – From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual Baha’i, June 15, 1982.
This statement is still relevant today, over three decades after it was written:
The science of the mind, of normality and of the disabilities from which it may suffer, is in its relative infancy but … The last ten years in the therapy of mental disorders has seen important advances from which you may well benefit. – Ibid., July 23, 1984.
Friends, please let’s educate ourselves about the issue of mental illness. That way, if we ever feel that “something is wrong”—within our own psyche, or in that of a family member or friend—we’ll be much better equipped to react appropriately to get the immediate help that’s needed and deserved.
How can we educate ourselves? Watch relevant movies and documentaries, read books or blogs, attend talks and other events sponsored by local mental health organizations. We can also learn about mental illness simply by reaching out—however tentatively or clumsily—to family members, friends and associates who cope with mental health issues, either personally or as caregivers. I assure you that your efforts will be appreciated, if not immediately, then later when the drama of a particular episode or crisis subsides.
Finally, as the Baha’i teachings recommend, let’s always strive for unity:
Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship … So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 14.
This Baha’i call to action includes building unity between people of different races, cultures, languages, genders and religions, and unity between people of different physical abilities. Humbly, I’d like to challenge us all to add one more item to that list: unity between people who are mentally well and ill. We’re all God’s servants, after all:
Let your hearts be filled with the great love of God, let it be felt by all; for every man is a servant of God, and all are entitled to a share of the Divine Bounty. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 27.