Mental Illness Feels Like: Creative reflection

Written by Mai Elsayed

“If we could look into each other’s hearts and understand the unique challenges each of us face, I think we would treat each other more gently, with more love, patience, tolerance, and care.” Said Marvin J. Ashton

Since I was a little girl, my mind would comprehend things quiet differently than the people in my community. I would observe scenes and conversations, then silently revise them in my head. At that point in time, my best friend was my journal. It was the only thing that wouldn’t judge my thoughts or criticize my observations. I have a humongous number of doubts at the back of my mind but I never had the guts to ask and clarify them. I remember being lonely (I say lonely not alone because there is a huge difference between both adjectives); I would feel left out despite being surrounded by people and because of that all I ever did was study and study and study! I recall going through some trauma and having no one to guide me or take my hand out of it. Therefore, I suffered from depression. During that period, I was looked at by some people with sympathy or pity and by others with fear. In brief, I was treated as though I am a psycho. I chose to be alone, away from people to the extent that some thought I had autism.

When I grew up a bit, I started taking psychology courses and that has helped me open up my mind. This is when I realized the flaws in our society. The only way my brain permitted me to express my disapproval and anger with what’s surrounding me is through painting, sketching and poetry. I felt free when I painted/ sketched because I had emotions and thoughts that no words would describe. I am sure there are many people out there who do have feelings that the English vocabulary fail to describe as well.

Let me list down some of the observations that felt like bullets through my heart:

  1. Violence/aggression is not just physical. In fact, words can kill and that’s why bullying leads to suicide.
  2. Majority of the people don’t understand what the different mental illnesses are (based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
  3. They also don’t know the different treatment options for the different mental illnesses.
  4. Mental illness sufferers are labeled and stereotyped. They are called schizophrenic, anorexic, delusional & the list goes on…, instead of being referred to as suffering from schizophrenia, anorexia or having delusions.
  5. Movies and history create huge misunderstandings about mental illnesses.
  6. People don’t know the different psychology fields and their degrees (psychologist vs counselor vs psychiatrist).
  7. Psychotherapy is looked at as a luxurious, and not an essential health care service.
  8. The profession is not covered by most insurance companies.

Sadly, the presence of mental health stigma and labeling prevents those who need the treatment to seek it and visit a psychologist, in order to avoid the shame of being called “crazy.”

Most importantly I realized that we are all the same. We all feel the same emotions (hurt, broken, damaged, happy, impressed, disappointed etc.). We just react different to different stimuli. For example, ‘person A’ and ‘person B’ both felt hurt when their partner died but ‘person A’ broke down in tears and got a heart attack. While ‘person B’ only cried a few tears but stood his ground. That does not mean that ‘person B’ is less sensitive or heartless compared to ‘person A’. ‘A’ and ‘B’ both feel pain but they just express this pain differently based on their schema and their experiences in life.

After a few years, I realized that I should put these observations into action. This is why I started the online initiative called Bitter Sweet. I want to help people who need the help because I know what it feels like to need support and not find it. The team works to represent mental illness in a down to earth friendly manner through video, painting, poetry and articles.

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