I Keep Pulling And Pulling, But Those Darn Bootstraps Just Aren’t Working!

I don’t fully understand why we, as a society, tend to view (and treat) those who suffer from emotional and psychological illnesses so much differently than we do those who have purely “physical” injuries and diseases.  

I suppose part of it is grounded in the old adage “seeing is believing” – a uniquely, but no less disturbing, human character trait that likely can trace its roots all the way back to the New Testament story of “Doubting Thomas,” who, despite being assured by his 11 fellow disciples that they had seen “the risen Lord,” was reported to have said: ““Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”  And so it is with us and our divergent views of physical and emotional illness – a broken bone is readily “confirmable” on x-ray, a tumor on a CT scan, but depression, anxiety, addictions, not so much – and, therefore, the former is simply much more “real” to us than the latter. 

If we’re to be honest with each other, part of our skepticism about emotional and psychological ailments also is attributable to ignorance, an inability (or an unwillingness) on our part to distinguish between those who are simply “having a bad day” and those for whom every day, left untreated, is (or has the real potential to be) “bad.”  That ignorance, in turn, causes us to respond to both groups with the same mindset – a misguided belief that “they should just pick themselves up by their bootstraps and move on the way everyone else does,” which, while arguably true for the “bad day” group is (or can be) profoundly hurtful to those who require compassion and help to have even a fighting chance of achieving that desired goal.   

Finally, but no less importantly, I think we tend to view and treat those with emotional and psychological illnesses differently from those who suffer from physical injuries out of fear, fear of the unknown, fear of uncertainty and fear of the sometimes unpredictable nature of such disorders.  Obviously, there is much to fear where many physical ailments are concerned, but at least in the case of most such ailments: their causes are readily identifiable; most run a fairly predictable course; there are concrete steps that help to facilitate the healing process; and, as a general rule, they result in a full (and equally discernable) recovery. There is something about all of those factors that makes it easy for us to feel compassion towards and a compelling desire to care for those who suffer from objectively verifiable physical injuries and ailments.  

Emotional and psychological illnesses, on the other hand, can be far less predictable, their causes can remain a mystery, their treatment is often subject to medical and pharmaceutical trial and error and “recovery” is seldom a clearly identifiable event so much as it is a lifetime  commitment to a healthier state of mind and being built on “choices” made repeatedly every day. Moreover, unlike physical ailments, there are no wounds that require cleaning and/or bandages that need changing, when it comes to such illnesses.  Consequently, when confronted with emotional or psychological ailments, the best (and often all) that even the most caring and concerned of loved ones can do to assist is provide unconditional support, love and patience.  

I know because, once upon a time, I was one of those “uneducated” bootstrap advocates. You can trust me on this one: We all need to be more compassionate towards and understanding of one another, particularly those who are committed to courageously confronting and addressing emotional and psychological issues that are just as “real” and potentially life-threatening as a heart attack. Only by doing so will we break down the barriers and erase the stigmas that enable insurance companies to deny or unreasonably limit coverage for the medications and treatments required to effectively address those illnesses and too often form the basis for sufferers’ reluctance and/or refusal to embrace that same care out of fear that they will be perceived as weak or incompetent. 

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