It’s closer than you think.

For all of you who read MHAC blog, I assume that you are at least curious, if not interested, by mental health issues. You might have taken a course or read some scientific articles on what mental health is and what kinds of issues fall inside this category. You might have even had a personal experience with it too, such as having seen a counselor yourself or having witnessed mental health problems in your own home. We all know (I hope) about the 1-in-5 theory of mental health, that 1 in every 5 people suffers from some form of mental health problems at least once in their lifetime. But how close, exactly, is it from our daily lives?

I was at a dinner gathering with a bunch of friends, casually chatting and catching up with everybody, when one girl made a remark on her family visit last summer. “It’s always good to see family members,” she said, “especially my grandparents, although my grandmother could hardly remember who I was at all.”

Two girls sitting across from her bursted into laughter. In their defense, she said it in a rather casual and funny way. I didn’t laugh. I asked her, “is it dementia?” And she quietly nodded “yes”.

In case you don’t know, dementia is a type of neuro-psychological disorders that mostly occurs in elderly adults (although it can also affect younger ones). It is characterized by cognitive declines (such as decreased memory) that go beyond the normal process of aging. In later stages of progressive dementia, it is not uncommon for the patient to lose most, if not all, memories of early experience with family and loved ones, which partly explains the high rate of depression and/or anxiety in patients with dementia.

Going back to our dinner conversation, the two girls were apparently apologetic. Of course, nobody blamed them. It is easy to make jokes about forgetful grandparents, or an uncle who refuses to leave his house because he thinks there are aliens out there trying to attack him, or a brother who could never learn how to talk to people, or a girl you saw on your way to school who kept mumbling words to herself. It is not because we don’t care about mental health or we look down on people who experience these issues. It’s just we don’t usually think about them outside the classrooms; we don’t think about them in our daily lives.

Now here is a scary exercise – at least I think it’s scary to think about mental health issues so close to home: next time when your mom says “sometimes I worry about you so much I can’t fall asleep”; when a friend says with a laughter “these textbooks drive me crazy; they make me want to kill myself”; when your grandparent tells a joke “nowadays if I get distracted for three seconds I forget what I was doing”; when an aunt says with frustration “my kid could never learn to look people in the eye, or respond when I call his name”, stop for a second and think about it. Of course, I’m not suggesting we should go out pinning names of mental disorders on everybody around us, but maybe, just maybe, these stories are not meant for a joke. Think about how many people you know in total, and that 1 in 5 of them will suffer from mental health problems sometime or other during their lifetimes. It’s closer than you think.

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