There are just too many times where we cannot see the forest for the trees.
Urban Dictionary explains this phrase as being too focused on the details to get the bigger perspective of the picture, too close to the situation to recognize that there’s more to be seen.
What if we don’t notice the forest because the noise in the trees is just too great, too obnoxious, too obvious to be missed. What if we are missing the greater view because we’re too wrapped up in the distractions, in not tripping over the roots, in looking at the leaves, in listening to the squawk of the birds.
What if the forest were the greater picture of mental illness and its effects on those with conditions and those who love them.
And what if the trees were some of the more obvious byproducts of mental illness – violence, abuse, drugs, suicide, abandonment, anger, and more.
Are we too focused on what sometimes happens as the result of mental illness, trying almost too late to prevent things that need the root of the issue to be addressed first before mending the branches?
I’m definitely NOT a doctor, but I have a lifetime of firsthand experience with too many relatives who have mental illnesses of varying degrees, types, and treatments. I can truly, honestly say that, even though I don’t have a mental illness, I have been affected very strongly by those in my life who do have one (or more) of these disorders.
The forest of family members’ mental illnesses I live in includes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Narcissism, Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, and probably some more that I just don’t know the names of because almost no one has ever actually been treated, as far as I know. And some of these behaviors are more situation-based than others, depending on the severity of the disorder or the intensity of the circumstance that brought on the episode (like depression or anxiety).
The trees in my forest, the more obvious symptoms of the disorders and mental illnesses, have varied over the years. Alcoholism, manipulation, drug addiction, manic and depressive behaviors, homelessness, risky sexual behaviors, suicide attempts or threats, money fraud, violence, emotional abuse, guilt, disowning family members… I don’t even remember all of the things, but that’s probably OK.
According to NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness), “1 in 5 adults experiences a mental health condition every year. 1 in 20 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. In addition to the person directly experiencing… a mental illness, family, friends and communities are also affected.”
Look at that again – “ONE in FIVE adults experiences a mental health condition EVERY year.”
And “ONE in TWENTY lives with a serious mental illness…”
And EACH of those adults has parents, children, siblings, etc. who are affected by not only the obvious symptoms and outward signs of the disorder, but are more deeply troubled because they don’t usually know how to help, often don’t know what caused the behaviors, and really love the people who are hurt and hurting them.
So WHY are we so unbelievably silent?!
Mental illness is one of those back-door issues that we too often just want to ignore, but we have to start seeing it and handling it before it consumes more individuals living with or without diagnoses or treatments or counseling, and before it affects their families, increasing the trickle-down effect and oftentimes perpetuating the cycle.
Especially for those of us who never knew that the signs or symptoms we grew up with were unhealthy and needed help.
For those of us who thought that maybe the little voice inside that said that maybe something was wrong, but that it was probably our fault.
For those of us who suffered untold trauma at the hand of someone else or a sickness or a situation, who were afraid to admit that maybe we would be stigmatized if we openly admit that we need help to deal with it all.
For those of us who feared that talking about what was happening would incur more wrath or abuse, would spill the secrets that were better off buried inside, would break up the only family we knew, dysfunctional or not.
For those of us who ran away from it all physically, but to never be able to escape it internally on our own.
For those of us who struggle every day to not repeat the cycle, terrified to bring the same pain upon our own children but not entirely know how to avoid it since we never knew what a “functional” family was.
NAMI states, “A mental health condition isn’t the result of one event. Research suggests multiple, interlinking causes. Genetics, environment and lifestyle combine to influence whether someone develops a mental health condition. A stressful job or home life makes some people more susceptible, as do traumatic life events like being the victim of a crime. Biochemical processes and circuits as well as basic brain structure may play a role too.”
Again, I’m not a doctor, and I wasn’t even a psychology major in college. I know that there are many people in the mental health field who may or may not agree with that explanation of the potential causes behind mental health conditions, illnesses, or behaviors. And I certainly know that there have been innumerable research studies and focus groups based on determining more specific reasons for certain conditions.
Thus the pharmaceutical industry is exploding with their own form of semi-helpful treatment options, based on the causes, the symptoms, the behaviors, etc. Unfortunately, too many times these medical treatment options lead to even greater problems and oftentimes compound the issues. But that’s for another day and maybe for someone with much more experience in that field than what I have.
Medicated or not, diagnoses or not, we have to start talking about mental health issues, their prevalence in our families and homes, in our workplaces and worship places, in our souls and beings.
We cannot deny its existence publicly or privately. We have to start talking about it.
We cannot over-diagnose just to drown out what is really hurting inside. Sometimes opening up the wounds is the only way to start real healing, not forgetting, but healing.
We cannot just treat the symptoms and behaviors. Like on every tree in the forest, there are roots that feed and nourish the branches and leaves, if the roots are healthy enough to grow the tree well.
We have to recognize that everyone has STUFF and BAGGAGE. Every single person.
The stuff and baggage just looks different on the outside for some and on the inside for others.
It doesn’t make anyone wrong or bad or un-faithful or un-anything.
It doesn’t make anyone flawed or unlovable, no matter what anyone has ever said.
It doesn’t make any of us less than who we were created to be.
It makes us just as needy as every single other person on the face of the Earth.
Every single one of us needs help. Everyone.
The first step is to talk, maybe to ask for help. To recognize that you are human and you cannot possibly bear everything on your own. Jesus Himself requires it of us.
He tells us that he will help us, that He will carry our burdens Himself.
Jesus says, as noted in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
AND we are to help bear each other’s baggage too. Jesus tells us too that we must love each other, burdens and baggage and all.
Galatians 6:2 reads, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
We cannot be defined by the burdens we carry, but by how we bear these burdens with and for others.
There’s more to be said. This is only the beginning…