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Mental health, for the unromantic

Since news of Chester Bennington’s passing broke, there has been an outpouring of expressions not only of sorrow and sympathy but also of pitilessness and outright distaste. In online discussions and comment threads on the musician’s death, people have called him a coward and bidden him good riddance for taking his life. Some have criticized persons like him for “romanticizing” mental health issues and suicide.

It is unfortunate that it had to take the death of a well-known person to spark this conversation again, and to again lay bare the myths surrounding mental health. Paying attention to these issues is not idealizing it, and neither is suffering from them. On the contrary, if we pay attention to the objective, unsentimental facts, we’d understand a little better that there is nothing romantic about someone wanting to die.

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The fact is that mental health conditions are as real and valid as physical ones. One persisting misconception is that mental illnesses are concocted to excuse poor decisions and behaviors. When someone has no motivation to get out of bed and has lost interest in activities, these behaviors are still often attributed to laziness or lethargy, and so rarely taken as symptoms of depression, which they are.

The medical community has long agreed on the validity of these illnesses. There are means to diagnose them and methods to address them. But one of the more intricate parts of mental illnesses is that they are diagnosed primarily through their symptoms, not their causes. These causes are still ambiguous even to modern science.

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So while a common cold can be medically identified by the presence of the virus causing it, depression or anxiety or other mental illnesses cannot. And because it is symptoms-based, “a mental illness diagnosis doesn’t necessarily explain a person’s symptoms, it only describes them,” writes psychology professor and author David B. Feldman.

Regrettably, it is perhaps this shortage of scientific insight that makes mental illnesses prime for misunderstanding. When even science is still struggling to define the depths of these conditions, we onlookers may not be able to fathom them at all. In our inability to comprehend these illnesses, it is sickeningly ignorant to call a person with such a condition a coward.

Feldman further emphasizes that although mental health diagnoses are still limited, they are far from useless. One important thing they accomplish is that they direct psychologists and therapists toward an evidence-based approach to treatment. In other words, a mental illness diagnosis is a stepping stone to remedies empirically shown to work.

That hope for a remedy is something we cannot progress toward if we keep dismissing mental health issues as imaginary, or shunning those with these issues as lazy, cowardly fantasists.

Now, in the wake of a high-profile case, here’s another truth that may require more urgent consideration: At a time like this, it is all the more important to pay attention to those at risk instead of shrugging them off, because the highly publicized suicide of an admired personality may trigger imitative suicides.

Studies call this the copycat effect or, more harrowing, the suicide contagion effect. Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, who leads research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, explains that when a famous person takes his or her life, it can trigger a certain mindset among at-risk people of the same age group and gender: “If he can do it, I can do it” or “If he can’t make it, then how am I going to make it?”

“That’s why reaching out is so important,” Harkavy-Friedman says. “Assume you’re the only one who’s going to reach out to them… If you don’t reach out, that increases the feeling of isolation that people in that kind of pain are feeling.”

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These are truths about mental health that many, especially in the Philippines, have refused to face. But we can be optimistic that it is starting to turn around for the better. The conversation on mental health is gaining traction, and people from all corners of these issues are speaking up.

More significantly, Filipinos with a psychological burden now have better and continually improving avenues to find help. The Philippine Hopeline is up 24/7 for anyone in crisis (its numbers are 09175584673, (02) 804 4673, and 2919).

As for the rest of us, we can no longer turn away from acknowledging mental health when its truths are confronting us everywhere. Nothing romantic, just a fact-based, objective acknowledgment. Our recognition of these issues and our willingness to understand them better may just save a life—maybe not one as well-known as a rock star, but one much closer, more important, to us.

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TAGS: Chester Bennington, mental health issues, suicide
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