If we treated mental illness like we do physical illness… nobody would be treated any better

Image of comparison between mental and physical illness
The controversial comic from Robot Hugs arguing that if mental illnesses were treated like physical illnesses people would get far better treatment (Robot Hugs 2013)

Featured image credit: Robot Hugs, 2013

The views in this article are entirely my own and do not reflect that of any organisation I work with. They should be considered reflective of my position at the time of writing, which may have since changed.

The truism that were mental illness treated like physical illness, people would be better understood, taken more seriously, and believed more often is constantly repeated. The problem is… it’s not true. We have a natural human tendency to think “the grass is greener on the other side“, but that often misleads us to overestimate the disadvantages of our current situation, and overestimate the advantages of a different one. We think that we’re in a dreadful position, and thus that those people over there have it better than us.

Therefore people write posts about mental illness comparing it to physical illness – that were their depression instead cancer, people would come running to support them. That if they had their suffering marked visible on their body, people would help them, they would be taken seriously, and the world would understand.

I sympathise with that. One of the hardest and most isolating things about mental illness is that, despite platitudes from friends, you’re often left to suffer alone. It can start to feel like that isolation is a result of a ‘hidden’ nature of mental illness; that test results, scans, objective findings would bring you a more supportive group of friends, a shorter waiting list, better luck at treatment. When you don’t have any of the resources you need to manage your condition, it can be impossible not to believe that those other people don’t have it easier at all.

The moment people start talking about how if mental illness were only physical, people would take it seriously, they betray how little they know about physical illness and how people are treated on those terms. The waiting lists are often as long. The doctors and nurses are often as harried. The treatments are often as experimental. People are often as unsympathetic.

I’ve lost a lot of friends to my illnesses. I’ve learned that friends don’t keep coming running crisis after crisis unless I’m there for them – unless I sometimes stay up all night with them too. And this is hard – often illness has prevented me, and by the time I’ve been well enough to reach out people have drifted away. I’ve been too depressed to answer a message for weeks and lost a friend. I’ve learned that there will always be some people who don’t take you seriously, who can’t or don’t want to listen, learn, and support you. This isn’t because an illness is physical or mental, it’s because not all friendships can survive the strain serious illness puts on them.

I’m tired of people living with mental illness looking at me and thinking that in some way I have it better than them. I don’t. I’ve been on both sides of this fence, and that’s where I’m writing from now. We need to find better metaphors for the pain of feeling abandoned by the medical community that don’t assume that if only we were treated like physically ill we would be treated better.

Let’s draw out the parallels and differences between our experiences without relying on assumption and stereotypes. Explore ways of discussing what we’ve lost and how we’re struggling with isolation that realise that we’re very often in the same boat. Ways of building commonality and community between mentally and physically ill people, of supporting each other. We don’t need to be set up in opposition.

But please: stop saying that if only you were physically ill, things would be better