“She….You know….Takes those pills.”
The woman lowered her voice, and her eyes skimmed the room nervously as she spoke. Her friend merely shook her head, uncomprehending. “What pills,” she asked loudly, placing her mug back on the table. “I don’t understand-”
The nervous lady looked around again, and leaned forward.
I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation. I have no idea what those two women, in a random coffee house in Jerusalem, were discussing. I don’t know who the “she” in the story was, and why her medications were a topic of discussion.
But I do know that the nervous lady’s tone of voice all those years ago – the hushed words, the unease, the hint of embarrassment – was one that I heard in many other conversations before and since then. It’s a tone that creeps into words like “depression” and “addiction” and “personality disorder”, even though other words – leukemia and back pain and strep – ring loud and clear and shame-free.
Which is odd, when you consider that the mind is after all a part of our body, as capable of growing sick as our blood and our backs and our throats. We don’t lower our voices when we discuss germs and hormones and other morally-neutral parts of the human physique. So why do we whisper when we discuss a chemical imbalance in the brain?
Depression and addiction are not a matter of morality. They don’t target only weak people, and they are not a mark against a person’s moral character. Sure, they sometimes lead people to commit terrible and immoral acts, but in themselves they are simply a disease.
Mental diseases can be deadly. And they require treatment, just like strep and cancer. But by turning them into a shameful, hidden topic, we may well discourage people who need such treatment from seeking professional help.
Last week, many eulogizers celebrated Carrie Fisher for normalizing mental illness. Deena Nyer Mandlowitz, for example, described how Fisher’s public and open remarks regarding her struggle with mental issues made Deena feel less alone in her own struggles. Deena has since shared her own experience publicly, hoping to help other victims of depression move past their embarrassment and find the help they need.
Even if we are lucky enough not to suffer from depression or addiction ourselves, we can still help the people who do by changing the way we speak about it. We can still work towards undoing the stigma that keeps people from seeking help.
By speaking of mental conditions in clear and compassionate tones, by draining our voice from embarrassment when we mention them, by being businesslike about them and replacing our hushed exclamations with (for example) a matter-of-factly discussion of the comparative merits of different treatments (like we would if someone brought up a bad knee), we can help people in pain seek the help that they need, unashamed.
We can save lives.