Hope in the mail

I mentioned in a previous blog that I’m an avid fan of postcrossing – sending and receiving postcards to and from strangers across the globe. If comfortable, I’ve requested that the lovely people writing cards to me, share their thoughts on mental illness.

Today I received this:

Hello Sam,
My name is M. I’m 12 years old and from Hamburg. Mental illness scares me a bit. It’s so sad to think about people who are losing a part of their mind.
All the best, M.

And if I could send M a letter back, this is what it would say:

Dear M,
Thank you so very much for your lovely postcard. I liked the beautiful photo of the tulips on the front.
I also find aspects of mental illness a bit scary. I feel scared seeing people in so much emotional pain that they might want to hurt themselves by self-harming or suicide. It’s also scary to think that because of a person’s illness they might not be in touch with reality. They might be hearing voices telling them to do scary things or they might be seeing things that aren’t actually there. It is scary to think of being in that position of being so out of control. I also sometimes get scared when I think about my own experience of mental illness. How it felt and the things I was unable to do. And I get scared that it will happen again. But, I want to reassure you that whilst parts of these illnesses can be scary, the people that have them aren’t. They’re just people. People who are in pain because of their illness.
I also agree that it’s sad to think about people experiencing difficulty with their minds. It makes me sad that in my country of Australia 2 522 people died by suicide in 2013. I get sad when I hear that suicide costs the country something like $17 billion - and yet we only invest about $250 million over two years in suicide prevention activities. I also get sad that 75% of mental health conditions emerge in young people on the threshold of productive life. For the 50% of young people who develop a mental health disorder they run the risk of dying tragically from suicide, having a sustained psychiatric condition or underachieving due to the vocational derailment that even a mild to moderate disorder can produce. The long-term human, social and economic impacts that could potentially occur leave me feeling gutted. You probably don’t know this but in 2011, the World Economic Forum produced a report showing that of the five major non-communicable diseases, mental illness had the biggest impact on the world economy in terms of reducing gross domestic product (GDP). While heart disease reduces global GDP by 33% and cancer by 18%, mental ill health does so by 35%. It makes me feel sad that despite this, Australia spends $1.5 million less on mental illness than cardiovascular disease. When I think about the current public mental health system in my country I feel devastated. And this is not looking to get better with threats to the system to continue in 2017. Thus, whilst I get sad it does not surprise me that only 10% of people experiencing depression receive minimal adequate care. And I get really, really sad that three out of four people with a mental illness report experiencing stigma because of their condition.
I think that the presence of stigma in contemporary society is a shame on all of us.
Because as you so insightfully noted M, when it comes down to it, mental illness is a health condition of the mind. And the brain, like any other organ or body part can get sick for a myriad of reasons. Some researchers studying mental illness believe that abnormalities in how particular brain circuits function contribute to the development of many mental illnesses. Connections between nerve cells along certain pathways or circuits in the brain can lead to problems with how the brain processes information and may result in abnormal mood, thinking, perception, or behavior. Researchers also believe that changes in size or shape of different parts of the brain may be responsible for causing some mental illnesses. For me, when I have been unwell it has definitely felt like I was ‘losing my mind’. I felt like I was powerless to the thoughts that I was having. And I had a hunch they weren’t rational thoughts, but I felt I had no control over them anyway. This was both scary and sad. But my brain was sick. And it needed treatment.
Despite our general agreement M, I also want you to know that I feel something other than just scared and sad about mental illness and I wish this for you to as well. I also feel hope. I feel hope when I think of the clients I have seen work hard and recover from their mental illnesses and go on to live lives that are full, content and meaningful to them. I feel hope when I read current research articles on progressive and new treatments and developments in mental health. I feel hope when I hear brave and courageous people speaking out about their own mental illness experiences in an attempt to break down stereotypes and stigmatizing beliefs.
And I feel so much hope when I receive a postcard from a 12 year old in Hamburg who in four sentences is able to display such insight, compassion and empathy for others.
Thank you M.
Love Sam.

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