Written by Jessica Van Horssen
“If you judge a fish on its ability to climb, it will spend its whole life believing it is an idiot.”
As a mother I can now see that by the age of 2 a child’s temperament and personality starts to show. I believe that when a child is born into this world, he or she comes with a certain temperament, a blueprint of potential. I believe that very much like a plant, a human being needs the right kind of nourishment to flourish. Just like plants, no two humans are the same. While a cactus doesn’t need much water, a tropical plant needs lots of water to thrive. Similarly, different types of humans need different types of nourishment in terms of friends, surroundings, and activities. Some humans are extroverts, some introverts, and some ambiverts. If the right circumstances are not provided for a human being, or trauma happens without enough time for recovery, mental illness can develop. On this issue, the nature-nurture debate has been going on for years and the big question is: Are we really born with mental illnesses or are they made?
After years of observation and work as a social worker, along with my personal experience of mental illness, I have come to believe that most “mental illnesses” are made (with the exception of spiritual awakenings that seem to happen in some people who go through depression or a burnout).
I’ve met this woman, now in her thirties. She is articulate, beautiful, and if you look into her eyes you see a bright sparkle, a lust for life. She also has a dark side. She stopped believing in herself. She is very insecure. While she has a very dominant personality, her dark side prevents her from fully coming into blossom. She has no control over this dark side (yet) as it is still very much in her subconscious, carefully protected by a huge fear. She knows it, she sees it, but the fear of really stepping into her power prevents her from becoming all that she can be. Maybe she is a late bloomer? Maybe she is deeply hurt? I think it’s the latter.
Go back in time, say around 30 years ago. The girl was born into a family with parents who suffered from childhood abuse. Because of their abusive upbringing, the parents developed disorders themselves, such as OCD and PTSD. However, they never spoke of such a thing, not to each other nor to anyone else. It was all swept under the rug. So imagine this girl, sensitive and bright, born into an environment of shame and silence. She could sense what was going on, and could even express it to her parents, but was shamed for voicing the pain that was hidden in her family; even blamed for it.
Being intuitive and smart, she could see and feel things that others would not notice. Now, take this gifted child into a school system that wasn’t ready for kids like her. Unlike the numerous children being labeled as having ADHD today, labeling was a lot less specific back then. Kids were just labeled as a “problem child” or “difficult”, especially when the child happened to be a female. Additionally, the school this girl went to was in a poor neighborhood. A neighborhood where intellect wasn’t valued very much. So although she was very smart, her school failed to recognize it. Her mother did, but no one believed her. At the time, this school was run by people who had positions but no real passion for teaching. They were the kind of people who used their power to make themselves feel better, not for the sake of teaching children or helping them grow. They were just in it for the paycheck and wanted children to follow their orders instead of encouraging them to thrive. So instead of getting extra work at school, the girl was told to clean closets.
This girl was not the kind of girl who would shut up and listen to someone saying: “Because I say so”. This girl happened to be a whistleblower, saying out loud what she saw and perceived. We all know what happens with whistleblowers though – they get punished. Instead, they deserve a stage, since they are among the only people courageous enough to stand up against injustice.
So, this girl has been going through years and years of punishment and shaming, while also growing up in a culture of bullying (in her school). She found out very quickly that she’d better adapt to survive. So, she changed herself to fit in.
By the time she reached puberty, she lost the core of her being. She became depressed because she felt like an alien. She felt like a kid who was forced into an adult world she wasn’t ready for. The only thing she knew she could do well was studying, so she studied hard for good grades. But emotionally, she didn’t feel connected with her classmates. Because she was both troubled at home and in school she slowly sank deeper into a depression. She didn’t know who she was anymore and started hating herself. Why couldn’t she just be normal? Why couldn’t she just fit in? Why was she feeling the way she felt? Where did it all come from? She channeled all her self-loathing into cutting herself.
That was the only way she could cope, carefully hiding it from everyone by wearing long sleeves all the time. Insecure and unable to proceed, she discovered marijuana. It brought temporary relief. So much relief that she started missing school for it; she got kicked out of high school by the time she was 16, and out of her home a year later. Did she end up in a better environment? Yes and no. She got the freedom she wanted, but got trapped in an abusive relationship full of violence and drugs, experiencing more mistreatment on top of what she already went through in her childhood.
Photo by Al Martin
This girl is now a fully-grown woman. A woman who has been diagnosed with about three different types of mental illnesses. A woman who has undergone extensive therapy but never got to the bottom of her dark side. A woman who doesn’t know how to relax or feel rested, as if being haunted by something. A woman who has considered killing herself like so many of her friends.
Mental illness, while being extensively researched, is still a bit of a black box. The nature-nurture debate is an ongoing debate that doesn’t seem to have a clear cut answer to the question of how mental illnesses come to exist. I know it’s a very individual process and not one person is the same. Furthermore, there are many biological processes that can play a role in the development of mental illness, as well as things like (teenage) substance abuse that can changes one’s brain chemistry. But prolonged physical and/or mental abuse can do that too. The problem is that the label of mental illness has too much stigma to it. When people think of a person with a borderline personality disorder, they think of a crazy person, as if that person has done something wrong, while most of the time that person has been a victim of childhood abuse in some way.
So I’d like to advocate to drop the label or call an illness by its proper name such as “childhood abuse disorder”, or “lack of proper nourishment”. This will help relieve people of the stigma that comes with a disorder and also provide more room for growth. Some famous people have opened up in the last years about their “mental illnesses”, such as Prince Harry, The Rock, Trevor Noah, Jim Carrey and many others, so it’s clear that with the right kind of nourishment and circumstances, people with a history of abuse can flourish. Let’s start to fix the environment too instead of just focusing on changing the individual.
Change must go beyond what one person is capable of. Let’s, for starters, stop stigmatizing people with a so-called “disorder”. Let’s change the mental health care system so that proper treatment and help becomes available in all layers of society. Let’s focus less on diagnoses but more on what an individual needs to thrive. And, foremost, let’s look each other in the eye and admit that we are all “disordered” in some way, say something that would make the whole thing much lighter and less alienating. We are all social creatures and, as much as individualism has given us freedom, we still need each other too. Excluding or shaming people is not helpful and we all deserve to flourish as human beings – disordered or not. Let’s create a society that promotes healing for all its inhabitants, because when a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix its environment, not the flower.