You see it on TV all the time, ghost hunter shows exploring an old psychiatric hospital. You’ve seen movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and you think that must be what it’s like, but it’s not. There were no ghosts, no demons, and at least where I was, no Nurse Ratched. Lately, I’ve noticed more and more people making fun of mental health facilities and the people they think should be there.
“Take the tin foil hat off your head and get yourself up to the fourth floor.” I’ve heard this a billion times in reference to conspiracy theorists. Now, I am the farthest thing from a flat-earther or a believer in the deep-state, but I’ve been on the “fourth floor” twice. This isn’t funny to me.
The Joke Stops Here
There really isn’t much that truly offends me, but cracking jokes about mental illness, suicide, or psych wards is something that will set me off every time. Someone in their darkest hour warrants our support, not our scorn. Someone who finds themselves in distress needs our love, not our jokes. Just today, I found someone I know, a first responder, no less, laugh at a mental health organization for trying to implore people to use the term “died by suicide” instead of “committed suicide.”
A little aside: The roll first responders play in helping those in a mental health crisis is crucial, however, too often these people are not adequately trained and can end up making an already traumatic situation much worse than it needs to be. I have my own personal experience with this, and I’m still dealing with the trauma of it to this day. Maybe some day, I’ll tell the tale, but I still can’t tell it even to my counselor without having an anxiety attack, so I’ll leave it for now.
But back to the jokes: It just isn’t cool. The last thing we need is someone thinking their friends and family are going to judge them or disown them for seeking out the help they desperately need. To you, the jokes may seem harmless, but to someone like myself, they add to the shame and the stigma we already feel on the daily.
Cancer jokes? Not funny.
Jokes about heart attacks? Again, not funny and rightfully so.
Jokes about someone’s mental state? Totally fair game.
See a problem here?
My whole adult life has been the story of getting my mental illnesses to a place where they are manageable and to a place where I can be functional as an adult. None of this would’ve been possible without getting help for myself. That old phrase “No man is an island” is even more true for those of us who deal with mental illnesses. We need allies and friends. We need your support, your love, your kindness, and your patience. We do not, however, need your scorn. It hinders us from getting help. Even if you’re joking about someone else, it still affects us negatively and adds to the stigma.
I’ve been lucky: I had parents who made it totally normal for me to go to therapy on a weekly basis when I was younger and they encouraged me that medication was what I needed, just like someone with a physical ailment. I’ve never really gotten the impression people thought I was strange for needing these assets, at least by those closest to me. Unfortunately, my story doesn’t seem to be the norm for many people.
It should be though, and making that a reality is one of the things my heart beats for nowadays. Since I first disclosed that I’ve been hospitalized for mental health reasons, I’ve heard of more and more people who had the same thing happen to them. Honestly, it seems to be much more common than what people care to admit. Too often, it seems people feel the need to suffer in silence, like that part of their story is a dark stain on their life that they keep bottled up and don’t talk about.
It’s understandable. I got lucky with the people I have around me. No one really bats an eye when they hear what I’ve been through. But even for me, it’s always in the back of my mind and my chief worry: What if a future employer reads this? What if that new friend doesn’t want to associate with me anymore? Not even I’m immune, someone who has had an abundance of support.
Not telling that psych ward joke may seem like small potatoes to you, but it really can be huge to someone like me. People who suffer from a mental illness sometimes won’t disclose their condition because they feel unsafe around certain people. Telling that joke may be the thing that pushes your closest friend to not tell you they’re hurting.
The way our culture views being hospitalized for a mental illness isn’t something I’m willing to sit back and take. We’ve made so many gains but there’s still much work to do. No one, upon meeting me, would even think that I’ve been hospitalized for my mental illness, I’m high-functioning, competent, and fairly well-spoken, but then again, a large part of those who have been where I was are also.
I don’t speak very much about my experiences in a mental health unit because, yes, some of my memories of those times are quite traumatic. Most of that trauma, however, stems from me not knowing what to expect and having a level of stigma in myself at the time. Knowing that this was far more common than what I thought may have gone a long way in alleviating some of my anxiety about the whole ordeal.
Although it was traumatic, my experiences in a mental health unit are why I’m alive today. Do I want to go back there? Hell no. Was it pleasant? Nope, but when is a hospital stay ever fun? Am I, in a weird way, thankful for those experiences? There’s some hesitance on my part to type this, but kind of.
I wouldn’t be here today if I wasn’t hospitalized, I am well aware of that. It was, by far, the most vulnerable time of my life, and even for someone like me, who chooses to be very open about his mental illnesses, it’s still a part of my life that’s extraordinarily difficult to share. I hope in sharing more about this part of me, I can erase some of the stigma and maybe ease someone else’s burden of feeling like they can’t tell anyone about their own experience.
So, be careful before you make that crack about mental health units or make light of someone who looks “off” to you, you never know who may be in your midst or what pain they’re hiding, even if you think you do.