Once again, the nation is engaging in a much-needed conversation about mental health. Tragedies provide a ripeness for this dialogue to begin after its hiatus. For those who have never experienced the pain of mental illness, it can seem unimaginable that a person would deliberately crash a plane, or drown their children, or any one of the senseless acts that humans can inflict on one another. Ironically, human beings are driven to live and survive—if we are underwater and need air, our biological imperative will help us find the water’s surface. From this point of view, it is incomprehensible that people do otherwise.
Mental illness disrupts perspective. Mental illness disrupts perceptions. It changes our thoughts. Our brain chemistry is altered. This causes people to experience emotions of despair, panic, confusion or a range of others. Researchers have theories as to why our brain seems to misfire with mental illness. As more is learned, the theories are refined and expanded. Currently, there are ideas about the mechanisms of neurotransmitters and how they are both produced as well as absorbed by the brain. Additionally, scientists are learning about specific genes that influence mental health and are working to figure out how they are activated. Furthermore, we know that there is a link between one’s thoughts, actions, and emotions. Changing any part of the cycle impacts the rest of the cycle and creates other ways of being, thinking and doing.
It is comforting to think that we can easily identify another person in distress. There is the idea that we will know if someone was struggling to the point where others might be in danger. Often, this is true. However, many are able to hide their pain. They walk among every one else, invisible in their suffering. An incredible photo-essay by Anne Betton depicts that you can’t assume what lies inside a person. It is a reminder that patience, empathy and understanding are more useful tools.
Asking an acquaintance and stopping to actually listen to the answer (or what might be underneath the conditioned “fine”) is invaluable. Small acts of connection can go a long way. While a smile might not have stopped the co-pilot from crashing the plane, little comes from vilifying him. His family is suffering, as are the families of the individuals who perished as a result of his inner pain.
If you are worried about your own thoughts or feelings, reach out to a mental health professional. Find the person who is a good match for you—one where you can feel understood and heard. Some great resources are: the American Psychological Association, National Association of Social Workers, American Counseling Association, and the Mental Health Association.