And the Horse You Rode in On: A Rant About the Western World’s Failures Regarding Mental Health
Day after day I’ve listened to news outlets and podcast speakers ungracefully report and backhandedly “process” the news that the German pilot who by all reports deliberately flew a passenger plane into the Alps suffered from depression. I haven’t been able to stand listening to or reading enough to find out definitively if he was officially diagnosed or if he is only alleged to have been, so I apologize if I don’t have that fact absolutely accurate. It hardly matters at this point, sadly. All we’re getting are media barking out variations on, “Why the hell did they let a crazy person fly a plane?”
First of all, fuck you. Fuck you every media outlet and individual who has equated mental health suffering with “crazy.” Fuck your insensitivity, your ignorance, and your kindergarten-level associations.
Fuck everybody in the office who let that copy get to the floor. Fuck everyone who didn’t immediately call in a mental health expert to explain the complex intricacies of the human mental state. Fuck you all for not talking about our medieval level of mental health care support in the United States in particular which kills a lot more people than one misguided soul able to lock himself into a cockpit. Fuck you for not bothering to do research enough to understand a Western plane full of Westerners statistically had to carry a huge number of people with medications supporting depression and anxiety in their carryons, for conditions they would never confess to exactly because of our horrible, terrible culture. Fuck them for not understanding how many people in their very newsrooms made quiet decisions to never, ever tell anyone about their therapist or bad day or never bring any medication to work because they might lose their job. Fuck them. Fuck them all.
I wish I could say “whew, so glad I got that out of my system,” but that rage is not out of my system. Because it’s more than the media. It is everyone in this country who is part of this problem. I can’t speak for other Western countries, but I know while they might be better than us on these matters, we all have a long way to go. To start, we don’t even remotely acknowledge how pervasive mental health issues are. The number of people in each of our acquaintances who suffer from depression or anxiety alone are staggering. Whoever you are, wherever you live, you absolutely know several people with moderate to severe depression or anxiety. Many of them are untreated and undiagnosed, largely because the stigma against mental illness is so intense it seems better to suffer in silence than to seek help.
Part of the problem is depression and anxiety in particular, in addition to being pervasive, are not easily treated. Even if our culture were more understanding of the conditions, by their nature they aren’t easy to address. To start, they are managed, not cured. Depression isn’t something one catches like a cold. It’s a complicated dance of brain chemistry and circumstances. Many of the elements most responsible are literally part of the brain. They cannot be removed or remade, only better understood and adapted to.
There’s also a huge difference between clinical depression and anxiety and the casual depression and anxiety every human feels from time to time. But as humans are wont to do, because we have a passing familiarity with these conditions, we extrapolate the way someone else suffers is similar or the same. Which leads to the ridiculous “get over it” and “snap out of it” remarks. The kind of depression and anxiety I’m talking about is the kind that cannot be snapped or stepped over any more than someone with heart disease can snap out of it, any more than diabetics can decide to get over their blood sugar levels.
We’d never deny an employee their insulin or seizure medication, but we don’t hesitate to back away when someone is revealed, by choice or by accident, as having mental health struggles. We fear crazy. We fear what we cannot control. We fear what we cannot understand.
We also, as a culture, prize the ideal. The prettiest people. The straightest people. The whitest people, or the right “ethnic” people. The most successful people. The well-balanced people. We so value the ideal that even models and actors who starve themselves and spend hours a day at the gym and days perfecting hair and skin are photoshopped. Which is how we end up at this moment with otherwise sane, kind people, spouting the mad, cruel statements like, “Why are we letting these people fly planes? Why aren’t we screening the crazy out of our pilots?”
We’ve played with prioritizing ideals a lot over the last few centuries in Western culture. It’s resulted in genocide, mass-murder, cruel experimentation, and overt and subtle slavery. Not just in Nazi Germany. Every country has had its moment in that ugly sun. It’s clearly a lesson we don’t want to learn, however. We truly want to believe in normal. We want desperately to live in a world where people can work like dogs, live like kings, look like angels, and play like gods. We want to talk about humanity as an ideal too. We want to have a gated definition of human with high walls and impenetrable doors and big pits to load the garbage into.
There is no normal. Humanity is messy, awkward, and terrifying. We will even under the best circumstances produce humans who make terrible choices. We will sometimes, despite our best efforts, turn our own kindness into terror. We will never meet our own ideals. Even if we manage to erect those walls, at best the life inside will be full of pain and fear, because anyone could be sent out that chute into the pit at any time. Because everyone is flawed. It’s not possible to ensure we won’t end up boarding a plane where a pilot might decide to take us on our last flight.
It is, however, possible to not add to his list of victims. It’s possible to use this moment to get real about mental health, to question a culture that allows so many people to descend alone and unaided into mental chasms which allow them to end themselves and others this way. It’s possible to examine our punishing work ethics and streamlined systems of education designed toward an ideal human, not an ideal individual human experience. It’s possible to take this moment to stop and question whether we as a culture offer enough support and compassion to our fellow humans suffering with mental health issues. (We don’t.) It’s possible to use this as a moment to ask ourselves how much we all shoulder the blame every time someone with mental illness takes their own life and the lives of others.
Clearly, though, we’re not going to do to that. Not now. Not as a culture, not in the media.
I don’t know how to end this post. I’m angry, I’m frustrated, and I’m helpless. In a week and some change I have a book coming out where I address, with more aggression than I have yet, the issue of untreated mental illness. It’s a book where my efforts to ask for a beta reader without depression or anxiety to give it a read met in utter failure because every single person I asked admitted to me I wrote a book that spoke to their own struggles with mental health. I’m upset because because I love all those people, and the media shat all over them without so much as tossing them a wet wipe after. I’m upset because my husband and daughter both battle every single day with anxiety. Valiantly. Successfully. My child, diagnosed early and raised by a father who knows exactly what lies ahead, has been equipped with so much aid she has a real chance of being able to treat her anxiety the way she would a heart condition. A limitation, a frustration, but a workable issue. Unless, of course, she runs into people who hear she has mental illness and decides she’s crazy, lesser, or fit only for society’s garbage chute.
I don’t have depression or anxiety. I have a therapist, and I have plenty to talk about, but my brain uses different techniques to manage the hell that is human existence. I crave control and mastery. I work myself to death, self-depreciate and drill-sergeant myself into perceived safety. Very early on my world was unsafe and unhelpful, so I made myself an adult at a young age. My brain’s coping mechanisms are ones our culture prizes. Because it’s very easy for me to appear competent and “fine.” In order to survive, I had to get good at appearing that way, so that’s what I did.
What our culture fails to acknowledge is the beauty, sensitivity, and depth we cut out when we only prioritize one type of human or cut some types out altogether. What we fail to acknowledge is people with high anxiety are better at discovering real threats than we are. They are the people who see tigers everywhere, and when there is a real tiger, they become calm, because the thing they’ve known on a cellular level could hurt them has finally showed up. When the tiger is there, they’re not “crazy.” They’re prepared.
People with depression feel. They feel on molecular levels. They see feelings in ways which truly require more words to describe them. They feel feelings with so much intensity they often paint, write, or sing them. They understand everyone’s feelings, when they’re healthy. They are our great and powerful empaths, the kind we like to write about in fantasy but punish in real life.
We all have gifts. We all have value. We all have struggles. We are all humans, and we all have a right to exist. To make our mark. To love, laugh, cry, bleed. Life is not an exact science, and it will cause a lot of us pain. We can either address that truth and make part of the human experience helping each other through our pain, or we can slap cruel labels on people with pain and try to declare them unfit for our playground.
Frankly, this week has been full of slaps. It makes me sick, it makes me sad. When I wrote Carry the Ocean, when I dreamed of what it could say, I never thought it would change the world. This week though, I really wish something could. I guess I’m victim of the ideal too. I wish humanity wasn’t full of cruel, selfish, unthinking animals. I wish they really would erect a big wall with a lock. I’d gather everyone I loved and ride down the chute with them.
If you have mental health struggles and this week the world slapped you in the face, I’m sorry. I’m sorry every time you turned on a radio or television or loaded a news site you saw our culture being cruel and insensitive. I’m sorry they equated your illness with having a side-effect of mass murder. And above all I’m sorry our society is such where very few people have bothered to point out how awful that was.
This week a man flew a plane full of people into a mountain for reasons we will never truly understand. This year more people will die at their own hand due to mental health struggles at a rate over twenty times higher than the number of people who will die in plane crashes for every reason.
You tell me where the real insanity lies.