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Not defined by the mind

by Barbara Madimenos April 7, 2015
Not defined by the mind

The importance of openly discussing mental illness in the public sphere

Graphic by Marie-Pier LaRose.

Graphic by Marie-Pier LaRose.

What defines us as people? Do we choose to be defined, or are we defined differently through each other? Does our appearance define us? Does our religion or culture define us? Does our DNA define us? I’d like to believe that I have full control and authority over how I am defined as a person, but realistically speaking, I don’t. The way I am identified, remembered, and recognized is subjective depending on the person that refers to me, but the essence of who I am is much deeper than what anyone can see from the outside.

At work I am defined as ‘little one;’ to my mother I am ‘Barbara;’ to my friends that I have lost contact with, I am ‘the one struggling to organize her life;’ and to anyone that doesn’t know me, but is aware that I suffer from mental illness, I am defined as ‘sick.’

Our definition of mental illness is sadly very vague. Many people are still uneducated over its true meaning. In short, mental illness means that the brain is sick. It doesn’t mean people who have mental illness are crazy, out of control, unintelligent, or incapable of living a normal life: it is just another form of the body suffering, specifically the brain.

Yet, when we watch news of the Germanwings crash—as we did with the Magnotta trial and the terrorist attack at Parliament last year—“mental illness” is sourced as a reason. In essence, their mental instability is—supposedly—what caused them to act violently and erratically.

However, if one were to step back and look at the other stories in the media, the reason for the blame of mental illness for crime is because we have finally been actually talking about the subject of mental health, instead of not even mentioning it.

Despite mental illness being tied to such tragic instances, the media continues to feature great organizations that are engaging society in learning to accept and normalize mental illness, such as Clara Hughes and the “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign. Celebrities are coming out with their own personal stories and struggles with mental illness, and support groups at our very own universities are recognizing that people need help. Slowly, society is learning to accept mental illness as something that does not define an individual, but rather, is just a small part of who they are. The more people get involved and learn about it, the more we realize that mental illness is not rare to come across, for nearly 20 per cent of Canadians will be touched by mental illness.

So, do tragedies such as these in the news derail us from focusing on what actually matters? A bit—but I will also argue that they are topics worth discussing. This is where society can truly improve: we do not define people by what type of cancer they have, how capable they are if they have an amputated limb, or if they have a disease of some sort. People should be defined for who they are as individuals and not for their struggles.

For heartbreaking fatal incidents such as these, we have no right to impose blame: fixing the past is out of our control, but we do have the power to act proactively and prevent such tragedies from happening again through education.

I may suffer from mental illness, but I define myself as a student, a writer, a 21-year-old girl that has dreams and a life to lead.

Mental illness does not define me.

I define myself.

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