By: Chana Weinberg | Opinions  | 

A Lingering Silence: My Experience With Mental Illness

How big of a number is 9.8 million? With 9.8 million dollars I could buy a fancy house; I could measure the circumference, in kilometers, of planet Earth 2,450 times; in 2018, there are about 9.8 million people living in Michigan.

This year, there will be 9.8 million individuals in the U.S. suffering from debilitating mental illnesses. That means that 1 in 25 adults is experiencing a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.

I cannot say a word about what it is like to live with a mental illness. Thank G-d, my brain’s synapses and chemicals are functioning as they are supposed to: I am able to get out of bed, go to class, study for midterms, laugh with my friends and feel present in the moments I am living.

But I do know and love people who are suffering from the horrors of mental illness.

Though I’m not sure if “horror” is the word that a patient with, say depression, would use to describe his or her illness — nor have I directly asked — I, as a loved one and friend, think that horror is as precise a word as I can find. To me, horror connotes something haunting, that lingers in silence. What about the illness lingers within me? For me, what lingers is the desire to help, to do what is best for my loved one while at the same time feeling lost as to how to do give that help. What about it is silent? The topic itself feels taboo — what could be productive conversations about mental health awareness are hushed whispers.


Have you ever yelled into your pillow: WHAT IN THE WORLD CAN I DO TO HELP THIS PERSON?! How do I say or do the right thing? What if what I say or do makes things worse? Am I a bad person because I sometimes find my loved one’s behavior frustrating? I have conversed (using choice words) with my pillow about this because I often feel that I could give more but don’t know how.

If you see someone fall down on the street, you run over to them, offer your hand and help them on their way. If someone comes to you with a question about a subject you are really good at, you do your best to explain the information you know. A hand or an explanation of a subject are the physical indicators that you gave of yourself to help move the person along. They make you feel accomplished, like you did a good deed.

I just opened a new tab and googled “how do you help your friend who has depression,” and a number of lists popped up. The common thread among these sources is a) to do some research and b) be there to listen to your friend. Knowing more facts about this subject can perhaps stop that lingering feeling of incompleteness. Learn about and research what the illness looks like in the brain as well as what the physical signs are. The obvious but more challenging solution is to listen; tell the person suffering that you are there if he or she needs you and then lend your ear.

In a similar vein, I asked a number of psychologists what the best way to help is and they all, in some way, said: “Just let them know that you love them and are there for them.” OK, I can do that. But even when I do, there are few physical indicators that I am really doing anything. One solution here (which I and likely most of us have gotten nowhere near to) is to address the silence in that lingering shadow.

Depression sucks — I cannot begin to fathom what it feels like — and keeping it a hushed and whispered-about topic does it no favors. In searching for a way to see that what I do makes an impact, I’ve decided to start speaking up. I encourage everyone: speak to your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends about considering therapy — you don’t need to have a specific issue to address to begin. Make an appointment at The Counseling Center and tell your friends to do so as well. Attend events such as Active Mind’s yearly Stomp Out the Stigma, where our peers inspire by projecting their voices so everyone can hear their stories.

I am aware that this solution will not result in me seeing my friend feel better — only medication and therapy will really be able to help. Rather, in writing this, I have learned to shift my goal. I can only change myself, and I hope that by pushing for change in my community I can push away the presence of that lingering, silent shadow.

9.8 million is a huge number. There are 9.8 million families affected by mental illness, and I would assume that number grows exponentially when counting the friends of these families. When I think about extrapolating a number like this across the entire world, it is crazy to think that mental illness is a topic that can be held in silence for much longer.


Photo Caption: Mental illness affects millions of Americans.

Photo Credit: Harvard Business Review