Let’s talk a bit more about mental health for a moment.
We tend to use the term mental illness as a fixed state term – it’s something that describes who you are rather than a transitory state, and that can be harmful. Sometimes illness is part of identity, to be sure – anyone with any kind of chronic illness has to incorporate it into their identity lest they make it worse. Denying that you have a gluten sensitivity would be the height of foolishness if it meant you continued to eat at all-you-can-eat pasta buffets.
But illness doesn’t have to be the defining aspect of our identity. It’s part of us, but not all of us – and that’s why I think we need to consider some alternate phrasing.
I’ve said previously that mental health is health – just as you’ve had varying phases of illness or wellness in your physical health, you also have varying phases of illness or wellness in your mental health. Like physical health, mental health varies based on our circumstances.
The challenge is in the phrasing: illness has a lot of connotations, connotations that invoke very specific mental pictures and judgements in our minds. Disease, contagiousness, long duration, etc. – and that in part is why we conflate it with identity. But if we accept that just as we will all be physically unwell at various points in our lives, we will all be mentally unwell at various points in our lives, we need a clear way of denoting those periods.
I’ve been injured a bunch of times in my life. You probably have been too. Broke my wrist playing soccer in 11th grade. Fell off a ladder a few years ago. Dislocated my shoulder for my brown belt test in the martial arts. Been in a car accident. You’ve got your litany of “well, that happened” injuries in life too, don’t you?
For most of those injuries, I’ve recovered. Falling off the ladder left me with a couple of interesting scars but not much more. My right wrist is slightly more susceptible to RSIs than my left wrist. My shoulder aches before major weather changes and there are stretches I need to do before doing any kind of heavy lifting with it. But for the most part, I’m able to do what I want in life despite those injuries.
But at the time… I wasn’t. I couldn’t. Wearing my arm in a sling for 8 weeks substantially impacted my life negatively. Wearing my wrist in a cast, same deal. During the healing periods, I was less than 100%, sometimes substantially so. I did recover, but during those healing periods, friends, family, and coworkers had to accommodate me (and they did, thankfully) and my less-than-capable self. That was the blessing of physical injury – you could see what was wrong.
What if we thought about mental illness like that? Rather than as a fixed state, what if there were something like mental injury? When you endure something really traumatic, like the loss of a loved one, that’s mental injury. And when you’re injured, there’s an expectation that you don’t heal immediately, you’re not better overnight.
That’s the challenge of mental injury versus physical injury. Someone walking around on crutches for 6 weeks is communicating without a word that no, things are clearly not okay. Someone who is devastated about the death of a favorite pet or the loss of a meaningful relationship will not have those same outward cues, but the injury is no less real or debilitating. If we think about the existence and validity of mental injury, perhaps we can treat them the same.
A friend of mine recently lost a job that was integral to her identity, and it is a devastating blow, like a professional athlete who’s injured enough they can no longer play the game they’ve trained their whole lives for, or a soldier wounded on the battlefield and can no longer serve. That’s mental injury. She’s endured a mental injury, and now she has to start the healing process. For her friends, it’s incumbent upon us to remember that she’s injured, as surely as if she was walking on crutches or her arm was in a sling. Just because her physical form is not exhibiting some kind of disability does not mean she’s not injured. She is – and like someone healing from something traumatic like a car accident or a bullet wound, she will be for quite some time.
We all deserve that grace, especially for ourselves. Imagine how absurd it would be if you were in the hospital after a bad accident and someone came in the next day and said, “What? You’re not better? Why not?” as you lay there scowling at them from your whole body cast. We need to give ourselves that grace after we suffer mental injury, too. No, we’re not okay. And even months or years or decades later, we’ll never be exactly the same. My shoulder reminds me of that before rainstorms, 22 years after the injury. Mental injury is no different.
Use the injury analogy to remember that people don’t get better overnight from any kind of serious injury. Give yourself grace, and extend that grace to others, when injury – physical or mental – occurs. You and they will be better for it.
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