You know how when you’re on an airplane and the flight attendant gives that post-take-off speech? The one about how to fit that dangling plastic oxygen mask on your head if something goes wrong while you are 37,000 feet above the ground? The one that says, “If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” [i]
I’ve heard people use that as an analogy. They recite the line to convince others that making sure you’re okay enables you to make sure those around you will be okay, too. It makes sense, right? If you pass out, how can you place an oxygen mask on the child sitting next to you?
But what happens when there is no dangling plastic oxygen mask that automatically drops down in front of your face?
If you are a Grey’s Anatomy fan (I am), then you know that somewhere in season 5, Owen uses three-word phrases to talk to Cristina.[ii] There’s a backstory, of course, but what you need to know is that the phrase “take care now” replaces the words “I love you.” Owen wants nothing more than to say those three words to Cristina, but he knows – because of something that happened – that he is no good for her. That they cannot be together. At the end of the day, after hearing, “take care now” and “nice work today,” Cristina calls him out. And after he explains that his therapist helped him come up with three-word sentences to replace the three words he really wants to say, she gets it.
And that’s when I realized I’d been doing that same thing for years. Through the diagnosis, the therapists, the psychiatrists, the failed educational programs, the meetings, the hospitalizations. Only my three words was one word: Fine.
How’s everything going? “Fine.”
How are the kids? “Fine.”
How’s work? “Fine.”
Back then – and sometimes even now – things are fine. I use that word as a shield. It deflects more questions and ends the conversation. Because talking about mental illness doesn’t always go the way you hope that it would. Because some people – most people – don’t know that while cancer is the fourth leading cause of death among young people, suicide is the second. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide in the United States than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED. [iii]
So is mental illness serious? YES.
Is a mental illness diagnosis for a child, teenager, or young adult devastating? YES.
Do people rally around with support and casseroles for families with a child hospitalized with cancer? YES. (And they should.)
Do people rally around with support and casseroles for families with a child hospitalized with a mental illness? NO.
There are no casseroles. There are no dangling plastic oxygen masks. There are lots of phrases that mask reality.
Take care now.
But here’s what I’ve learned: It doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe those of us who love and care for people who struggle with a mental illness should rewrite our own version of the traditional airplane oxygen mask speech.
“Oxygen and stress are always being monitored by you alone. In the event of a crisis, nothing will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth and take a deep breath. Breathe in and know that you are not alone. What may seem devastating and awful right now is because it is devastating and awful. But you have the power to be brave. There are people out there who know and understand. You just have to find them. Your oxygen mask is your support and your fortitude. It automatically releases and becomes available when you speak up, share your story, and find people who get it. And if you are traveling with someone who requires assistance, hang onto that mask. Do all you can to end stigma. And take care now.”
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Joshua 1:9 (NIV)