The Invisibility of Mental Illness

Mental health
The Reality of Mental Illness

To be human is, in one way or another, to be “wounded,” even “scarred” by life itself. That is a fact of the human condition. Other terms to describe the condition are “bent,” “broken” “finite,” “fallible” and “fallen.” It is relatively easy to see external wounds to the body, say, on the hands, arm or face. Such wounds, of course, are visible. For the most part, there is no disputing the reality of external wounds, because they are empirically verifiable. In other words, they can be seen or touched.

But there is another kind wound, which is internal. It not so easy to see, but it is just as real as any bodily wound. It is the wound to the psyche or inner human self. That is why someone may say, “That person has problems, issues.” Although they are often manifested in external behaviors, the cause of them is often difficult to determine, because they proceed from the inside, the inner person.

Similarly, mental illness is experienced in a person’s private life, his or her inner, invisible “world.” In other words, mental illness itself cannot be seen. Of course, its effects may be seen in, say, a person struggling with depression, anxiety or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Mental illness may also be expressed in a person’s face. But it starts inside; then, eventually, it shows itself on the outside.

I was giving a lecture to university students in the greater Philadelphia area on the reality of mental illness, when one of my students interrupted me, objecting, “There is no such thing as mental illness. It’s all in a person’s head.” I replied, ‘That is precisely why it is called ‘mental illness,’ because it is, indeed, in a person’s head, not in his or her arm nor in the legs.’ It is a form of denial, then, to say that mental illness is not real. It is like saying that neither pain nor death is real. To most people, mental illness is real and, especially, to those who suffer from it.

Since the mind and body of a human being form a person, there should be just as much concern for the mind as the body. Mental health, then, is as important as physical health. For example, depression, if left untreated, can be just as harmful to the body as leaving diabetes untreated. In short, mental illness is as real as any kind of bodily illness. However, many people fail to recognize that, because they are blinded by a prejudice toward the mentally ill. It may be that the worst kind of blindness is not in the eyes but in the heart of a person who refuses to acknowledge that mental illness is real.