From the moment I immigrated to the United States 13 years ago, I have said, kidding, that American is a crazy. Nonetheless, because of the media attention placed on mental health lately, I had time to reflect on personal experiences that led me to believe that the American craziness is more than a public health dilemma.
The stigma associated with mental health patients has hindered the efforts to find an effective and lasting solution to the problem. I say mental disorders are the modern era leprosy and just as in the past, social structures keep the ailing hidden. In other words, “Out of sight, out of mind”.
According to the CDC, there are more than 200 classified types of mental illness. Among the most common are: anxiety, disorders attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, disruptive behavioral disorders, depression and other mood disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders, PTSD, schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders, and substance use disorders.
Based on the most recent data from 2016, it is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans (43.4 million) will experience mental health any given year. Also, 1 in 25 Americans (9.8 million) lives with a serious mental illness (SMI) such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.
In addition, SMI patients who have a serious functional impairment that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities, have an increased risk of suffering heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Therefore, they die on average 25 years earlier than the rest of the population.
However, the most alarming data is in reference to teens and young adults: 1. Half of the people who suffer mental illness develop their symptoms at age 14 2. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 15-34.
Per the CDC, some of the factors that contribute to risk for mental illness are:
- Early adverse life experiences, such as trauma or a history of abuse (for example, child abuse, sexual assault, witnessing violence, etc.)
- Experiences related to other ongoing (chronic) medical condition, such as cancer or diabetes.
- Biological factors, such as genes or chemical imbalances in the brain
- Use of alcohol or recreational drugs
- Having few friends
- Having feelings of loneliness or isolation
The last two points caught my attention. In my humble opinion, and based on the differences of my Colombian upbringing, I think some mental illnesses are the result of the American culture itself.
Americans are self-sufficient and many times self-absorbed. They live their lives based on a schedule leaving no room for spontaneous activities, and social interaction are usually planned and by appointment only.
This is one of the things I miss most from my life in Colombia. Every day, there was time to slow down the chaos, have a cup of coffee and chat with a relative or friend at a moments notice. We only need two to start a party!
I understand Americans want their space, in every relationship. The problem though is that many people end up pushing everybody out until nobody comes back. Many people, especially seniors, live in loneliness. I can’t count the times that complete strangers start talking to me, non stop about their lives at any given the grocery store without me initiating the conversation.
I know Colombians are nosy, opinionated, and our families can drive anybody insane. My husband will attest and agree with this statement. But, I believe that’s why mental disorders such as depression and anxiety are less frequent in our culture. Kindness and caring for others is our best cure.
Life is hard. And it is much harder without having someone to talk apologetically. The catharsis we reach when a good friend listens to us, without judging, helps us recognize our own humanity in someone else’s and find mental balance. Only through human contact, we become better humans.
Thank you for reading and sharing.