We talk about mental illness like whites about "Africa"

In my last post, I talked about mental illness and how it really is illness. So I want to enlarge a little more on that.

Everyone (mental health professionals like me included) goes on and on about mental illness and sometimes you hear things like:

  • "People with mental illness are violent." (Which isn't the case, by the way)
  • "I have a friend with mental illness."
  • "Mental illness is really illness." (Yes, that was me.)

See what's wrong with those statements? No? OK, maybe it's not so obvious. Let me explain.

Rethink Mental Illness

If you've seen Chimamanda Adichie's brilliant TED Talk from 2009, you'll recall this statement. (And if you haven't seen it, you totally should! Check it out here: The Danger of a Single Story: the quote is from shortly after the 5-minute mark.)

Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight  about the charity work in "India, Africa and other countries."

We've probably all experienced it one way or another, haven't we? Just this weekend, I was listening to an audiobook by a white author I really respect, and he was talking about his "first trip to the dark continent!" I couldn't believe what I was hearing: like, people really still think of Africa that way? I could try to understand them thinking of us as always fighting, needing aid, and all, but, dark continent?!

That's just how it is with mental illness.

Like whites with Africa, we think of "mental illness" as the dark condition. We speak of malaria, hypertension and mental illness, and other conditions.

Ask most people what comes to mind when they hear the phrase "mental illness," and you'll find it typically brings up images of half-naked, loosely-clothed people muttering to themselves and tending towards aggressive behaviour. Or they think of a Hannibal Lecter: you know, the cold, psychopathic serial killer type. Either way, definitely not the kind of person you want to hang out with.

But mental illness, like Africa, is far more than that: the scope is vast. There's depression and anxiety, panic attacks and learning disorders. It ranges from physical conditions that become severe enough to affect the brain to physical symptoms with no identifiable explanation. It even includes behaviour: problems with sleep and eating and sex.* It spans men and women, kids and the elderly.

And all of it is real.

So the next time you hear someone say, "mental illness," think of Africa, and remember it's many conditions, not just one. (Tweet that.)

This is the second post in the Understanding Mental Illness series. The first post was What exactly is mental illness, anyway? Don't forget, you can sign up to get new posts right in your inbox!

*Mental and behavioural disorders is a more complete name, but it's too long for everyday use.