According to NAMI, half of all chronic mental illness is developed by age 14, and three quarters by age 24. Despite this, many people go decades without getting any help, even though there are effective treatments. We develop coping mechanisms that help us in the moment as children, but these unguided approaches often catch up with us later in life as addictions, relationship struggles, career challenges – many of them rooted in stress, anxiety, and depression. Often we are functional enough, with enough career achievement, that we do not consciously acknowledge our problems until we can no longer go on living the way we are. A life of delayed help can often feel something like this:
“As children and young adults, we felt scared, worthless, and different from what we projected others were feeling, which lead to us becoming disconnected and isolated from our parents, friends, and even ourselves. Experiencing our feelings was so painful, we sought relief in cravings, desires, obsessions, compulsions, defensiveness, being closed, and a monkey mind, that over time, flourished into a complete zoo. These responses exacerbated our guilt, shame, self-hatred, emptiness, fear, and suffering, driving further isolation and distorted thinking. As we aged, we held onto pain until it became anger, and we held onto pleasure until it became addiction. Unable to cope with our feelings in the present, we ruminated on the future until it became stress and anxiety. Unable to cope with our feelings in the present, we ruminated on the past, a mountain of “shoulds”, and on distorted thinking, until we developed depression. Eventually we became so SAD (stressed, anxious, and depressed), that our old coping mechanisms, that once helped us, failed us completely.” (based on a creed from a 12-step program)
There is a stigma about brain health and mental health that is not associated with other physical ailments such as cancer, alzheimer’s, the flu, or even heart disease – it is the idea that people with mental health problems suffer from a moral / character flaw, or are simply too weak to simply “snap out of it”. While the interaction between brain chemistry, brain structure, environment, and thinking patterns is complex, with still much to learn, what we do know is that mental health impacts everyone regardless of culture, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. One in five adults in America experience a mental illness.
No life is a wasted life. But a life lived without the joy that is achievable when mental illness is effectively treated, is a much better life, for both the sufferer, and everyone else. We all play a role in everyone’s healing, in many ways. One of those is getting the stigma out of brain health issues, and getting people the help they need as soon as possible, in addition to making cognitive skills such as mindfulness, CBT, and DBT mandatory aspects of child education.
The process of moving from a life of suffering to a life of joy is multi-dimensional, with no single point solution, so holisitic approaches can take time to have impact. Nonetheless, we must do more to start the journey earlier in life with both proactive brain health and mental illness recovery.