How to Be An Ally Those Suffering From Mental Illness

by: Amelia Hussein

In October 2010, I was admitted into Advocate Masonic Hospital for my depression and suicidal thoughts.  I had not made a plan, but I was showing signs of giving up on life.  I had been diagnosed with severe depression the past December and had officially been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic disorder December 2008 (although I showed great signs for the illnesses in the first grade and the fifth grade).  A combination of neglect, genetics, and abuse led to development of three mental illnesses in my life.

Coming to Chicago represented a new beginning for me.  I found a new and loving environment with people, who seemed genuinely interested in me, but something happened that October: I began to fear that just like in Minnesota (where I had moved from), I would be abandoned and hurt by people who I thought loved me.  This scared me, and one October day I called my STARS mentor, Mallory, upset.  She came to my dorm, and I talked about how “I wanted life to stop, because I was tired of existing.”  This was not typical suicidal thinking, but it was concerning that I have just entered a new and more positive environment and already wanted to give up.

Mallory wanted to take me to the hospital, but social conditioning had instilled in me a sense of disgust for the psych ward of any hospital, but then Mallory described something that helped me gain the courage to go.  She explained just like when you get physically sick.  For example, getting food poisoning, with depression and other mental illnesses, there will be times were one needs to go to the hospital to get better.  Mallory had equated the legitimately of mental illness to physical illness and showed that it just like with physical illnesses, it is okay to get help.  I talked to a social worker named Joel who like Mallory validated my illness while in the hospital.  He explained how a mental illness is caused with the brain is injured due to some sort of chemical imbalance that can be caused by various factors.  Technically, the brain is hurt, but the brain does not have pain receptors, so the symptoms of mental illness are not found in physical pain but in behavior.  Here, Joel expressed the reality of injury in mental illness and explained how due to the lack of pain receptors led to different symptoms.

It has almost been two years since my hospital stay, and I have taken steps to work with my mental illnesses.  I take medication, see a therapist once a week, and visit my physiatrist once a month.  It has not been smooth sailing since my hospital stay.  Actually, this year has been extremely hard to balance my mental health and the rest of my life.  This is just a glimpse into a very complex story of my mental health and my life.  I share this story to show the reality of mental illness: it is very real and is very common.   Anyone can suffer from a mental illness.  They do not have to fulfill a certain stereotype.  In fact, many of the people I have told about my struggles with mental illness have been surprised because “I seem so happy” and I do not fit the typical stereotype.  Truthfully, when people first see or meet me, I do not appear to be suffering from mental illness.

But I am just one of many in Chicago, because the public mental health clinics of Chicago provide resources and healthcare to thousands of Chicago residents.

However, over the past decade, the City of Chicago has cut down on public mental healthcare services, and in recent years, the city has closed down some of the clinics.  To the mental health clients of these clinics, there is no other means to receive mental healthcare due to the high costs of private mental healthcare and the distance of these private centers from their homes.  The Mental Health Movement was formed through a coalition of organizations to fight against the privatization of mental healthcare in Chicago and protect the public healthcare services that thousands of Chicagoans depend on.  This movement has taken used direct action to fight against these cuts, closures, and privatization.  This ethnography studies the working of the Mental Health Movement through its various actions, activists, and forms of communication.

Through my research and experience with the Mental Health Movement, I learned about the great fails and faults of the American mental healthcare system.  The most vulnerable of mental health illness sufferers face the possibility of not being able to get the proper care because of privatization of healthcare, especially in Chicago.  In my research, I learned that at least ten known people had to be hospitalized so far in Chicago because their clinics had been closed under Rahm Emanuel’s plans.  I think about how much I suffer from mental illness, and I do not even have to worry about being able to receive the proper help and healthcare.  I could not image the fear and suffering one of the patients at Chicago public mental health clinics are going through because their clinic may be closed, and they may not be able to afford care at a private center.  I experience studying of Chicago’s Mental Health Movement also gives me hope about the growing strength from allies of mental healthcare.  So many people have joined the Movement to help protect mental healthcare.  Many of these activists do not personally struggle mental illness but believe that those who do deserve the proper support and services.

With having personal experiences with mental illness and the Mental Health Movement in Chicago, I have compiled a list of suggestions that I believe can allow for people to be better allies of mental illness sufferers.  Please take not that I am not the representative of mental illness sufferers or the Mental Health Movement, but I believe by following these suggestions, we can build solidarity between society and mental illness sufferers.

1. Get educated.

The first step to being a better ally is learning and getting the correct information on mental illness.  It is important to know what you are supporting.  There are many ways to get educated.  Research online, talk to the doctors, and talk to mental illness sufferers.  You will learn what the true about mental illness is and will help break those stereotypes and myths of mental illness.  Plus, as an ally, if someone asks you a question, it is important to have the correct information to share with them.

2. Listen, ask questions, dialogue.

As I described above, one way to get educated is by dialoguing with mental health sufferers.  We can share the first-hand accounts and experiences of mental illness.  Our stories show that ordinary people suffer from these illnesses and show the strength it takes to survive and live with a mental illness.  It is really important that you respect us for sharing very vulnerable stories by truing listening.  Do not make judgments.  Take in what we have to offer you and absorb the courage we exude from sharing our stories.  (Trust me.  Sharing our stories is one of the scariest parts of suffering from a mental illness).  If you get confused, it is okay to ask questions.  This prevents incorrect assumptions and stereotypes from forming.  Another important part to this dialogue is realizing how it can be very healing for a mental health sufferer.  By taking the time to listen to sufferers, you validate our struggles.  You allow us to share the pain that we are so often are forced to hide because society does not understand nor accept it.

3. Do not assume someone is not suffering because they do not appear to be suffering.

Some many mental illness sufferers, including myself, have been able to master the art of appearing fine.  Often, it is an attempt to survive because we are afraid to face rejection from others if they were to know the true of our sufferings.  Many people have been very shocked to hear that I struggle from three mental illnesses because I appear/seem so happy.  It did not even cross their minds that I could be suffering from something so difficult.  As I explained above, mental illness comes out in our behavior, not our appearance.  We do not get spots or begin to throw up.  Instead, we become desperate, depressed, hopeless, scared, and because society does not accept those as symptoms of illness, we are forced to create a mask, a cover of being fine.

4. Join the Mental Health Movement in Chicago.

Some many mental health sufferers in Chicago depend on the public mental health clinics to receive the care to live.  Rahm Emanuel’s plans include closing and privatizing these clinics without understanding the effects and impacts this has on people’s lives.  Many people will not be able to afford and receive care from the private clinics, which gives them no other options for care.  To find out more information go to STOPChicago.org to learn more and find out how to get involved.  There is also a Facebook page you can like and get updates about various MHM actions.

5. Do not be afraid.

We are not crazy.  We are sick, just like anyone with the flu or the chicken pox.  Do not fear us.  Yes, sometimes our behavior may be odd and uncomfortable, but we do not act that way as a means of hurting you.  Our behavior is caused by an illness.  Yes, there are some mental health sufferers that use their illness and behavior to take advantage or others, but majority of sufferers do not do this.  We are people, too.  We are like you.  We want to be to loved and understood no to be feared and avoided.

6. This one is especially for mental illness sufferers: Share your story.

For society and people to understand and learn more about the truth and reality of mental illness, we have to share our stories.  We must tell of the type of pain we go through, what we are doing to get better, what we need others to do to help support us, etc.  By sharing your story you help make it easier for other mental illness sufferers to find the strength to survive and share their stories.  Also, there is a healing power in sharing your story.  I have experienced this myself, and this is why I try to be as open as I can about my own struggles.  If I can make it easier for another sufferer to get better and heal, sharing my story is worth it.

Amelia Hussein is off being an International Studies and Peace Studies nerd at DePaul University, when not busy explaining her vast ethnic heritage and her love to for Kenya (her hometown),.  Some of her time is spent eating Sweet Mandy B’s treats and dancing.  This fall, Amelia will be studying in Krakow, Poland.  Someday she hopes to return home to Kenya.

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3 responses to “How to Be An Ally Those Suffering From Mental Illness

  1. This is a great post. I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a week in April of last year due to depression and suicidal thoughts as well. There I was diagnosed with Asperger’s, panic disorder, agoraphobia, OCD and major depression. Since then I’ve realized that a lot of people don’t understand mental illness and there are a lot of misconceptions about it. This leads to a lot of people not getting the treatment, support or respect that they desperately need. So thank you for writing this. 🙂

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