Don't You Wish We Actually Had a Simple Way to Measure Mental Illness?

Caroline de Braganza

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“Wonderful news - you are completely cured.”

If only it were that simple.

Imagine annual check-ups where you could rejoice at the news from your doctor:

“All clear. No trace of mental illness.”

Pure fiction!

You don’t get to wear a ribbon

In Still Alice, linguistics professor Alice Howland is diagnosed with familial Alzheimer’s disease shortly after turning 50.

“She wished she had cancer instead. She'd trade Alzheimer's for cancer in a heartbeat. She felt ashamed for wishing this, and it was certainly a pointless bargaining, but she permitted herself the fantasy, anyway. With cancer, she'd have something to fight. There was surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. There was the chance that she could win. Her family and the community at Harvard would rally behind her battle and consider it noble. And even if it defeated her in the end, she'd be able to look them knowingly in the eye and say goodbye before she left.” - Lisa Genova, Still Alice

I’ve watched the powerful movie three times and though the screenplay differs, I wait in anticipation for the line that hits home every time.

When Alice says,

“I wish I had cancer. At least, they get a pink ribbon to wear.”

Mental illness doesn’t garner sympathy

Often quite the opposite.

Thank God my diagnosis was Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and not Alzheimer’s.

But have you noticed stories of how so-and-so recovered from such-and-such cancer engender endless engagement and empathy?

Sighs and accolades abound. The masses marvel at such tenacity and courage in the face of danger; society supports them through their ordeal of radiation and recovery.

“How brave!” the people cry.

The years pass and the annual celebrations continue.

I’m not knocking cancer survivors or anyone who has overcome a serious illness. You are incredible people and well done for winning the battle. I’m using the example of cancer to make a point.

It’s damned difficult for anyone who has recovered from, or is working through, depression, anxiety, PTSD, agoraphobia, bipolar disorder or many other mental health diagnoses to receive the same, or anywhere near the recognition that a cancer patient receives.

I’ve been free of MDD for twenty years now—I’ve written about it.

It doesn’t make headline news.

It doesn’t go viral.

Those of you who have recovered from or still live with a mental illness know exactly what I’m saying.

You should all get a medal for bravery!

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Fundraising favors “real” illnesses

Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illnesss,

Mental health care is under-funded and neglected. Access and affordability are major barriers to people receiving the treatment they need. This pandemic has highlighted those problems, but that’s not the point I’m making here.

If you check any online fundraising campaigns, you’ll see projects for health interventions such as operations, radiation therapy, MRI’s, blood tests, x-rays, travel costs and so on gain sympathy and traction.

I have yet to see one where the request is for funds to treat a mental health condition—psychiatry, medication, psychotherapy, counselling.

It doesn’t appeal to people the same way a physical illness does.

It’s invisible.

What if we had tools to measure our emotional health and well-being?

Imagine a future where neuroscientists, neurologists and associated specialists could:

  • Detect the mood of each sparking synapse of every neurotransmitter in your brain—happy or sad.
  • Weigh the fear in your amygdala and say it’s within the “normal” range.
  • Measure the thickness of your brain stem—healthy diameter.
  • Check size of hippocampi—acceptable and flourishing.
  • Test memory banks—operating at optimum efficiency
  • Calibrate your self-esteem
  • Measure the levels of neurochemicals in your brain*

*I mention that last one in particular because the science does not yet exist to do that because of the blood/brain barrier—despite what many would have you believe.

We could all go for an annual check-up, like the cancer survivors, and rejoice at our clean bill of health for another year.

What can you do?

In the realm of mental health, nobody can assess our state of emotional wellness better than ourselves.

A counsellor or therapist can act as guide, but we decide for ourselves if we’re ready to sail into the future without their steadying hand on our mental tiller.

We don’t get to wear coloured ribbons.

Nobody throws a party to celebrate our recovery.

If only we could say with certainty, “I’m okay now,” without that pinprick of doubt, wondering if our inner peace will last forever. But we can’t.

We’re realists.

Resolute, we step back into the world and keep going.

Fellow travellers, I salute you!

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Published essayist. Follow me for local news that impacts our lives, plus stories on public and mental health. Through writing, I also share my passion for music, politics, our environment and social justice, and hope you find value in my words.

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