I had an op-ed run in The Crimson this week, as part of their “Mental Health at Harvard” focus. In an attempt to dissect the difficult emotional landscape of this campus, I focused this piece on Harvard; however, I’m worried about attitudes towards mental health in the wider world as well. I wonder if our environment, despite various pressures, is more tolerant towards sadness and depression than other places — I suspect so.
In January, the Pentagon announced that it would not award the Purple Heart — the medal which honors soldiers wounded or killed in combat — to veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health conditions. Their reasoning was that a scarred mind, unlike an amputated limb, cannot be diagnosed in objective terms. This makes sense. It’s not that the government fails to recognize mental wounds, or that it believes that PTSD is more a result of cowardice than courage. We just don’t know enough about the mind — about our internal selves — to know when we are hurt. If we don’t understand what it means to function, how can we know when we’re broken?
At the same time, the Pentagon’s decision is emblematic of a troubling attitude towards mental health. When we understand PTSD and other conditions as being different — if not less serious — than “real” wounds, just because we can’t prove their equivalence, we are using our ignorance as an excuse to ignore. We make ourselves to blind to inner sufferings which, though invisible, are real. The Western intellectual tradition has always privileged mind over matter, but when we talk about illness — is this the word I should use? — the hierarchy is reversed. Our scars mean more when they can be seen.
Illness. Mental health professionals will avoid that term around their patients, and I understand the rationale — we don’t want to think of ourselves as “sick”. But if mental health is going to receive the social attention it needs, we might have to admit — and this will be hard for a lot of people to swallow, for good reasons — that we are sick. The problem facing mental health is not just that it is stigmatized, but that it is trivialized. We don’t think of sadness as a disease, but as I realized last term, it is — it can be crippling. We resist calling ourselves “ill” because the symptoms — unhappiness, loneliness, hopelessness — are so common to us all. To admit that these emotions are a disease is to admit that we are all sick, at some point or other. It would be an indiscriminate, blanket diagnosis for the human world.
We like to think of health as being the norm, and sickness as the exception. We want to believe that some of us are immune. But we aren’t. We are all vulnerable. We are all frail and fragile. We are all ill.
And it’s not until we admit it that we can start to cure ourselves.