“There is no health without mental health.”- WHO
The prioritization of physical health versus mental health is an issue of contention in today’s society. Despite a shift towards mental health literacy, it is evident that regardless of our education, background, or personal experiences, when comparing mental to physical health, many of us (myself included) are guilty of favouring physical illness as a more legitimate form of disability.
Let me give you some perspective…
Example 1: Bad Bobby
You’re an elementary school teacher and there is a child in your class (we’ll call him Bobby) who is a bit of a shit disturber (for lack of a better term of course). Specifically, Bobby misbehaves, doesn’t listen or follow directions, and frequently gets into trouble with the other kids. As a first impression, you’d probably think that Bobby is a bad child and that his parents should probably do a better job of teaching him some self-control.
Well…it just so happens that Bobby has a brain tumour the size of a golf ball pushing against his frontal lobe. Because this area of the brain is responsible for self-control, the tumour is contributing to Bobby’s behavioural symptoms previously identified as shit disturbing.
How do you feel? A bit guilty perhaps?
Example 2: Deb the Downer
You are the boss at a big Law Firm. You have an employee, Deb, who is very good at her job; however, in the past few months Deb has been repetitively late for work, is constantly irritable, and has missed important deadlines. Lunchroom gossip has branded Deb the ‘office grouch.’ As the boss, you decide it’s about time that you sit down with Deb and discuss her behaviour; if it keeps up you’ll have no choice but to fire her.
When Deb comes by your office later that day and you bring up your concerns, she immediately tears up and informs you that she has recently been diagnosed with a Thyroid Disease characterized by constant fatigue, slowed mental processes, and poor memory. This has made it very challenging for her to get up in the morning and to concentrate on work. Obviously you sympathize and tell Deb to take a few days off to catch up on sleep and adjust to the medication she just started.
Mind vs. Body
Let’s reconsider both of these examples:
What if I told you that instead of a brain tumour, Bobby had a diagnosis of ADHD?
What if instead of Thyroid Disease, Deb was suffering from severe depression; a disorder that manifests some of the exact same symptoms?
Be honest with yourself. Would your reactions change?
There are a lot of influencing factors that can bias our perspectives and ability to empathize with an individual’s situation (e.g. age, gender, diagnosis, etc.). However, the point I’m trying to make is that Bobby and Deb did not choose to be sick; mentally or physically. Regardless of the underlying cause, their behavior, their symptoms, and the impact on their lives, is the same.
The only difference???
The perception of others.
I’m not trying to discredit the severity of physical illnesses, and I’m not trying to guilt trip those of you who naturally sympathize more with those who suffer from a physical illness (I do it too and I have a mental illness!). What I am trying to do is reframe the way we think about mental illness.
The premise of the b4stage4 campaign that inspired me to start this blog: We don’t wait until Stage 4 to intervene for cancer, so why do we wait to treat mental illness and addiction?
In other words, why do we prioritize physical health over our mental well-being?
If you’ve ever been to the Emergency Room of a hospital, you’ll know that they triage or assign degrees of urgency to decide the order of treatment for a large number of patients. While this is a necessary tactic to maximize efficiency and patient care, unfortunately, in many instances, the man with the minor cut on his foot will still be seen long before the teenage girl fighting suicidal thoughts who arrived 3 hours prior.
This needs to change.
Besides the fact that physical and mental health are inextricably linked, we can’t assume that just because there isn’t an explicit physical explanation for something, that someone isn’t suffering to the same degree. Speaking from personal experience I can tell you that there are times when we very much are.
It’s important to remind ourselves that at the end of the day, good or bad, mind or body – health is health.