During my first week at UTM, I was diagnosed with severe chronic depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I sought out the infamous HCC and received an appointment with an on-campus social worker for three months later. In the meantime, the receptionist directed me to a pile of Good2Talk and Kids Help Phone pamphlets. The following month I was assaulted twice: once physically (off campus) and once sexually (on campus). That summer, I was hospitalized at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). I was released after two days only to be re-hospitalized at Credit Valley Hospital in the winter.
I am now in my third year. A couple of months ago I underwent a psychiatric evaluation where I was officially cleared of both generalized anxiety and depression. This was the result of escaping two situations of severe dysfunction and a year of intensive, private therapy. Where once I was dropping or CR/NCRing classes at least once per term, I am now properly attending two institutions as a full-time student in my joint program. In addition, I am balancing a twenty-four-hour/week rehearsal schedule for the production component of my Theatre and Drama Studies program. In the interim I’ve artistic directed a theatrical season, written two plays, directed two plays, and made my Toronto theatre debut in a professionally produced workshop of a solo-piece I wrote and performed.
It’s a nice story, isn’t it?
We enjoy stories of triumph over adversity. We want the narrative of distress to be linear, and we want it to exist solely in the past tense. More profoundly, we need the story of distress to be a story. But it often isn’t. In most instances it’s a random series of uncontrollable events. This is an Uncomfortable Truth, one which we try to soften by inventing facile cause and effect theories, i.e., people get diabetes because they don’t eat properly, or heart failure because they don’t go to the gym, or depression because they’re weak. Each of those claims is either blatantly misinformed or plainly reductive, but they also make catchy loglines. This is the naissance of the stigmatization of illness: it blames the victim for circumstances beyond their control.
In her essay Illness as a Metaphor, Susan Sontag writes, “Theories that diseases are caused by mental states and can only be cured by will power are always an index of how much is not understood about a disease.” She also explores how our inability to see, hear, or feel another person’s psychic pain hinders our ability to describe it without simile or metaphor. One may say it feels like they’re spiralling, or like their heart is on fire, or like there’s a void within them, but they can never really say what it is.
This is why no single experience of mental illness is authoritative. All opinions of those experiences are weak reflections of reality because mental illness is not a monolith. It manifests on a spectrum. It can by dysthymic or debilitating or neither or both—it is as diverse as humankind. When someone on the outside offers simple solutions to diseases as complicated as depression or anxiety or borderline—when they say to exercise, or to download some app, or to eat kale—they patronizingly insinuate that the illness is the fault of the one who suffers it. Because it needs to be something’s fault, right? If not, then it’s weird, random chance. But that’s what chronic illness is: it can happen to anyone.
The Canadian Mental Health Association says that one-in-five people will experience mental illness at least once throughout their life. The Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) which is calculated by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) measures the expected years of health lost to a disease, and according to IHME, 32 per cent of Canadians aged 15-49 suffer from various mental illnesses and addiction.
That’s a massive number.
By contrast, 1.8 per cent of people from the same demographic suffer from diabetes, and 1.05 per cent suffer from strokes. Mental illness is a global disease burden which requires immediate attention on every institutional level, and it is presently grossly underserved by the health sector and beyond. It is detrimental, then, to encourage a rhetoric which distills a systemic issue into an act of laziness or weakness or incompetence and place the onus on the individual to work against a structure larger than themselves.
Look: I don’t know if hope is the proper response to the human condition. The more I grow the more I find the notion superficial. But I do know that mental illness is almost always treatable, and that how one feels at their worst is, by definition, transitory. This is fact. It’s not a vague, distant rumour of a better future. I survived myriad essays and feigned high-functioning adulthood in the midst of incessant emotional crises.
But when one believes fortunate things happen to them because they deserve it, or earn it, or work harder, they see the world with a distorted myopia. They don’t commit to uplifting the systemically disenfranchised because they don’t see a problem. This is a pernicious, Ayn Randian view which is obviously destructive for the world at large. But it’s also destructive for the individual perpetuating it.
To each who breathes: there will come a time when arbitrary and awful things happen. No one deserves chronic pain or bipolar disorder or cancer. Deserving isn’t a constructive way to imagine it, because you are not your luck. Regardless of which set of random events are inflicted upon you, you are an indispensable member of the human race.