Sarah Conner sits in a ward, face scrounged up, eyes askew. Breathing irregularly, she looks at the suits in the room with contempt. The look is reciprocated, because the suits are absolutely convinced of Connor’s condition. There’s no doubt in their mind. This woman is cooked.

Film connoisseurs undoubtedly recognize that scene from the seminal classic “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” The film’s heroine, Sarah Conner (played by Linda Hamilton), already survived a traumatizing ordeal of avoiding a machine from the future sent to kill her, only to be met by a roomful of skeptics who think she’s about as truthful as Santa Claus. The irony of this scene is that the viewers know the veracity of Conner’s claims. To us, her claim of fighting a futuristic battle was wholly true.

Nonetheless, she was institutionalized. Labeled. Medicated. And deemed beyond repair.

“Judgement Day” was perhaps the largest platform in which the follies of the United States’ mental health institutions are exposed. The Boondocks aired an episode—“Smoking With Cigarettes”—about a child’s love of destructive behavior and how a “concerned” teacher was intent on capturing him and killing him. The episode’s arc centered on Riley’s trouble eluding Lamilton Taeshawn, the thrill-seeking prepubescent with a dysfunctional family and skewed morals (turn to 9:20 in the video for the revealing scene).

If the sentence, “in the system to get him the help he so desperately needs,” elicited a chuckle, then you’re more than likely a conscious citizen of the United States. Although the term “mental health” wasn’t mentioned, it was heavily implied by Taeshawn’s continuous sociopathic behavior. When it comes to the discourse of mental health, people tend to write off this deviant behavior as a lack of willpower to just, as my momma would say, act right.

On what standard of health is the system based? Better yet, what is a mental health disorder?

According to the ubiquitous Wikipedia page, a mental disorder is a psychological or behavioral pattern generally associated with subjective distress or disability that occurs in an individual. Pencil me in Doc. And I imagine many of you reading this experience this broad definition on a daily basis.

But let’s say Wiki is wack and nobody should ever rely on its contents for any serious discourse. How does the National Institute of Mental Health, the largest scientific organization dedicated to understanding mental health (their words), define mental illness? I thought you’d never ask:

“Mental disorders are characterized by abnormalities in cognition, emotion or mood, or the highest integrative aspects of behavior, such as social interactions or planning of future activities.”

Highly inclusive stuff. Furthermore, what does the Surgeon General have to say about manifestations of mental illness?

“Persons suffering from any of the severe mental disorders present with a variety of symptoms that may include inappropriate anxiety, disturbances of thought and perception, dysregulation of mood, and cognitive dysfunction.”

Seems like “Wackipedia” is on to something. A study led by Harvard Medical School epidemiologist said that half of Americans will develop a mental disorder at some point in their lives. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans 18 and older suffer from diagnosable mental illnesses in a given year. Count the three people sitting around you. Statistics hold that one of y’all are mentally ill. And that’s just if the doctor can find medicine to treat it.

Pardon the flippant tone. I don’t state that from a space of hierarchy or derision, but matter-of-factly. Mental illness is no more shameful than catching a flu, or a cold revving up in your body. Nobody blames a person for sneezing if he has a flared-up cold, or the cancer patient for undergoing chemotherapy. In fact, they generate “bless you’s” and prayers.

Yet, too many Sarah Conners and Ron Artests exist within communities that would rather write them off than understand what they’re going through.

The intent behind the words used in our culture are far more powerful than their meaning could ever approach. Words like “weak” and “powerful” and “hero” and “coward” are just a few adjectives that demonstrate how judgmental our culture is. When it comes to the discussion of mental illness, those words can expose the maturity—of lack thereof—of a culture.

Suicide is considered to be the province of the mentally inept, when it is actually an offspring of depression. Anybody who thinks that only the mentally inept suffer depression indicates a bankrupt knowledge of our neurotransmitter processes. It’s not weakness, per se, it’s imbalance and sensory overload.

In the sense that we lack the knowledge and coping skills to deal with depression, yes, it is a weakness, similar to a skinny guy who is physically weak it comes to the weight room. Some people lack the reps to deal with life’s challenges because not enough time is spent properly discerning symptoms, identifying the root causes and controlling or eliminating the defect.

As the skinny guy spends more time lifting weights, he gets stronger and able to handle more weight. When dealing with depression, the more effort we put into learning about ourselves, the illness, and ways to deal with it, the more mentally strong we will be.

Instead of embracing mental illness as a concrete reality, we tend to relegate it to abstraction. Which is odd, because there isn’t a family existing that isn’t touched by mental illness.

Another issue surrounding the discourse of mental health is the arbitrary nature in which “illnesses” are coined. For a long time, there was a terminology used to describe runaway slaves in America. Yes, that’s right. Instead of not wanting to be treated as, you know, a slave, making efforts to escape made you afflicted with drapetomania.

Feeling a little despondent because disappointment occurred in your life? Instead of being ill-equipped to deal with disappointment, you have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and have to medicate yourself stat.

Want to make sure that nothing impure goes into your body? Well, your fixation with eating healthy food is a mental disorder.

It’s a wonder why people profess to be mentally ill at all. Condescension and pharmaceuticals and million-dollar words await them. Too often we regard weakness as a fixed state, instead of an opportunity to get stronger. Growing up, I was told all the time by teachers that I had ADHD. They were as adamant about that as the suits were about Sarah Conner.

My parents, bless their hearts, never bought it and kept me out of the doctor’s office. I thought I was just hyper. As do millions of other children who are told the same thing.

When weakness is displayed—in my case, it was my inability to control my energy—the focus becomes getting rid of the stigma (not talking about it and downplaying) instead of becoming stronger in order to become more immune to the ailment.

Gratuitous medication and laughing results. The cure becomes the disease, thus leaving the disease untreated.

Constant under-treatment and mistreatment of critical anatomical processes—the human brain—continue to pervade our culture in lockstep with our indifference. It’s our quickness to stigmatize, and slowness to examine the legitimacy of mental illnesses, that fuels a system more interested in getting people in it than keeping people out.

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  • Erika

    I appreciate the spotlight on mental health issues. However, I must correct some of the assertions you made in the article.
    1. You are right in noting that suicide is a by-product of depression but incorrect in asserting that people who are not clinically depressed are also at risk for suicide. Clinical depression occurs when at least five of the following symptoms are present: depressed mood everyday, nearly all day, loss of interest in activities, hypersomnia/insomnia, feelings of hopelessness, excessive guilt, excessive weight loss/gain, difficiutly concentrating, indecisiveness, and thoughts of harm to oneself (suicidal thoughts). Oftentimes we throw around the term depressed. To be clinically depressed is to have experienced five or more of the aforementioned symptoms for at least two weeks. These symptoms must also interfere with your social, school, or occupational functioning.
    2. Although there is a tendency in the mental health field to over-diagnose, I think that you were overly simplistic in laying out this issue. There are specific symptoms that are required before one is diagnosed with an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc. If the provider is diagnosing correctly that is, an eating disorder will not be diagnosed simply because one watches what one eats.

    I think it is important for people, especially people of color, to be more education about mental health issues. It is also important, however, that we have the right information. This article is a good starting point.

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