The Broken Brain

At the beginning of what would turn out to be the most popular TED talk of all time, the late Sir Ken Robinson made a powerful assertion: “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” What follows is a passionate, witty, inspiring 15-minute talk on how we’re training children out of their creativity instead of showing them how to use it, and what we must do to change that pattern.

While I don’t have a 15-minute talk up my sleeve, I would like to make a similar, though already often-quoted assertion: A mental illness is an injury like any other, the mental equivalent of a physical ailment, like, say, a broken leg, and we should treat it with the same status.

Treatment, in this case, refers to “societal” more so than “medical.” You can’t put a cast on someone’s brain, and the number and kind of pills will also be different. Some broken legs heal without surgery. Others need intervention. A pulled muscle needs less attention than a torn ligament. Clearly, the rainbow of mental illness is entitled to as many shades and colors as the broken bones category, and so what the therapists prescribe will vary a lot based on what we tell them and what symptoms we exhibit.

No, the treatment I’m asking for is the one that happens in the elevator going up to your office. It happens when someone introduces themselves at your book club or when you pass someone talking to themselves in the street. That’s the treatment we give to people struggling with mental disorders, and it’s important that both we and the victims can talk about it without squirming, without romanticizing, without condemning, and without slowly leaning back in our seat making a “coo-coo” noise in our heads.

“Oh, depression, that sucks. What kind of treatment are you getting for it? Did the doctors give you a timeline for when it should improve? Or are you still diagnosing causes?” Of course being bipolar is not like a broken leg. You know it. They know it. The doctors know it. But writing someone off permanently just because they have an illness we can’t see won’t just not help them heal as quickly as possible — it’s also flat out wrong.

I know it’s hard. It’s hard to know what to say, to find the line between respect and patronizing, to neither belittle nor blow out of proportion, but that’s exactly why it’s valuable (and usually appreciated) when we try our best to do it. That’s our duty. Having to deal with a mental disease is enough. Losing one’s societal footing because of it is entirely unnecessary — but it’s us, the friends, the families, the bystanders, who must make sure that doesn’t happen.

When you encounter mental illness, put on your hat of dry professionalism, even if you’re just an amateur. You can’t identify a broken leg based on crutches alone either, but when someone tells you they have one, you can ask simple, non-dramatizing questions.

It’ll take a lot more than one TED talk to change the cultural standing of mental illness, but if we each do our part, we can make the right treatment as widespread as literacy — and that feels at least as important as making sure our children don’t lose their sense of imagination as they grow up.