I grew up in a world dictated by mental illness. It caused tremendously negative ripples in my life pond, and still does. As an adult, I've been able to separate myself to a certain degree, but it's still a part of my life. And as people age, mental illness, particularly if gone untreated, doesn't get better. It only exaggerates.
The pervasive nature of mental illness is hard to describe if you've never had any experience with it. It goes beyond neglect and abuse. Because mental illness largely goes undiagnosed, or, is misdiagnosed, and, is ultimately hard to define, you can have high-functioning individuals who may be a big-wig in the workplace, but in every other area of their lives, behave irrationally. In fact, one of the trademarks of a successful CEO or Executive is having a mild form of sociopathy, or, lacking a social conscience. So it's not a surprise to see that the number one city for adult mental illness is Washington D. C., followed closely by New York and Massachusetts.
As a child, it was surreal. To know that the adults you depended on were somehow off but to have no real ability to help them, or, yourself. And inevitably, mental illness, after years of exposure, has a negative effect on otherwise healthy people. Whether the embarrassment of bringing home a friend only to find 12-inch piles of crumpled napkins and papertowels covering every kitchen surface, or being told over and over again that something you know to be unequivocably true isn't--like the color of your eyes-- exposure to mental illness can be maddening. There's so much wrong with your everyday life, that you begin to question your own sanity. It's like living with people who whole-heartedly believe the sky is red, even though it's very clearly blue. And you can't argue with them. You have only two choices: walk away, or, more sadly, join in the fantasy. And as a child, you can't walk away. You may try--very hard--to help those affected to see reality, but that's the tragic part of mental illness: there's no infection site to treat--it's nebulous in nature and has many different contexts, each as legitimate as the next. You're ill-equipped to deal with what is now a shared reality. There are moments of safe-haven though. Because in these rare moments, other people will acknowledge your struggle and ease the burden.
The difficulty with mental illness is that it makes otherwise criminal actions seem almost sympathetic. But if you've been victimized by someone with a mental illness, your experience is still a legitimate experience, even if the people who hurt you were not always in their right minds. Things you may not otherwise forgive, you may feel obligated to overlook. And that isn't healthy. For anyone.
Ultimately, once you've done all you can do to help, and treatment is still refused, you must walk away. It sounds hard and horrible, but there's nothing more you can do. To continue to attempt to save a drowned man is a form of self-punishment itself; that kind of irrational behavior means you've been infected, too. In order to get better, you must walk away. If you want to quit smoking but have friends who smoke, you can't see them anymore. Alcoholics are encouraged to stay away from those who enable drinking. If you have depression, you cannot socialize with negative people. And it is the same with mental illness. It can be infectious, even though there is no physical "germ" that contributes to the condition.
If you feel you're working for someone with mental illness, your best defense is to try and get another job within a new department or leave your place of employment altogether if at all possible. It's the same with friends or family who may suffer from undiagnosed or untreated mental illness. You cannot save them. You can only save yourself.
Our society glorifies mental illness with reality television shows meant to entertain; things like Hoarders or Doomsday Preppers reflect the public interest in mental illness, but not in terms of helping these poor people--only to put them on public display--to make them a focal point for Facebook status updates and Twitter hashtags. That, in and of itself, is mentally ill. Like the KAYAK commercial that makes light of brain surgery.
Curiosity is a nice way of saying "nosy"--if you want to actually learn more about mental illness, stay away from reality TV. Instead, check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness:
Or, The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):
Mental illness affects 1 in 5 Americans. It's real. So there's a very good chance that you know, work with, or are related to a person suffering from mental illness. The problem is, unless that person publically displays their mental illness, no one will force them to get help. Anyone would rush to help a person bleeding to death. That's why treating mental illness is so difficult. It's not always as obvious to identify as physical illness. Hard to deny you're sick when you're puking your brains out. But if you haven't slept in your bed for months because you're a hoarder, no one may ever know.
The best way to counteract mental illness is to regularly see a therapist, eat well, exercise daily, and as Joseph Campbell said, "Follow your bliss." In other words, live well.
Living well isn't about material items or the number of dollars in your bank account. It's about prioritizing yourself. You cannot help anyone else if you yourself are not whole. Want to help the world? Start with you. And even if you feel you're in a good place, maintain your physical and mental health by not over-commiting, squeezing out things like healthy eating and exercise, and, by steering clear of negative people and situations. Instead, walk the Earth with mindful compassion.
If you put yourself first, everything else will follow.