Views expressed in this blog are mine alone and are not intended to represent Williamson County policy nor intended as legal advice.
Terminal Uniqueness, Toxic Individualism, and Mental Health.
I take two medications daily. Likely, I’ll be taking them for the rest of my life. Both are for chemical imbalances. One of those drugs and the disorder it treats would raise no eyebrows. It’s common drug therapy for a common problem. The other is much the same but the disorder it treats carries a stigma.
I take a synthetic thyroid hormone to counteract my hypothyroidism. Left untreated hypothyroid (underactive thyroid) can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, goiter, infertility, and mental health problems. In extreme cases, untreated hyperthyroidism can lead to very decreased metabolism that causes coma and death. So, serious risks easily prevented by daily medication.
I also take an antidepressant. My chronic major depression is well under control but my history says that a maintenance dose is needed to maintain remission. In other words, I need to keep taking the medication indefinitely to prevent further episodes.
Even though both conditions are very common, one of them will be considered completely medical and of no serious consequence. The other carries a stigma that all too often prevents people from seeking help. In speaking of this openly, I acknowledge that I run the risk of damaging my political career. It’s my opinion, however, this is too important an issue to play it safe.
In my talk therapy in the 90s, I came across a term known as terminal uniqueness. Terminal Uniqueness is the belief that the situation you’re is facing is unlike anything anyone has ever faced before. It is so unique that therapy and that what works for others couldn't possibly work for you because no one can understand what you’ve have been through. It is called terminal because this thinking leads is ultimately self-destructive and relationship destroying.
Believing that no one will understand what’ve you been through and how you’re feeling is a serious building block to improving your mental health. It’s not narcissistic or self-involved. Your issues are simply so overwhelming, you can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s isolating which only serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s so common as to be almost universal. The next term is far newer. Only recently have I heard the term toxic individualism. It refers to the societal belief that the individual is ultimately responsible for everything that happens to them Any situation they find themselves in is something they should handle on their own.
It’s the false belief that we, especially in America, exist on a level playing field and any problems we have succeeding are ultimately our own fault. The Great American Dream – anyone in America can, through hard work, become a rags to riches success story. Failure to do so is not the result of socio-economic circumstances beyond your control, learning disabilities or anything else. It’s your fault, full stop.
I’ve spoken about this before and how I believe this idea of toxic individualism is key to understanding the state of our nation. It’s also key to understanding why there is a stigma attached to mental health. You should be able to control what you think and how you react. After all, it’s just mind over matter. It’s all in your head. Get a hold of yourself and man up. We’ve heard all these and more. They belittle the struggle, demean the person and undermine their recovery. In other words, toxic individualism is as damaging to our mental health as terminal uniqueness. Together, they’re a real double whammy that many people find too difficult to overcome on their own.
And that’s the key. We’re told we should be doing everything on our own. To ask for help is not just a sign of weakness but immaturity. We push our kids out of the house as soon as we’re able. We leave our seniors alone because surely, they’ve had a lifetime to prepare for their retirement and end of life.
I’d like to pose a question. We live in an increasingly technologically advanced world. There are now more cell phones on the planet than people. Tell me how you’d fix your phone if it broke. Not troubleshooting software but the phone physically won’t hold a charge, won’t turn on and won’t make a call. How do you fix it? Yourself.
Likely, you can’t. You probably don’t even have the tools to open it up. It’s so sufficiently advanced it might as well be magic. Tell me how it works. It’s not connected to any phone lines. And no cheating by looking it up on the Internet, which you also don’t know how works. I know I sure don’t. It’s something to do with servers and code but I couldn’t give too much better of a description than that.
Or let’s go more basic. How do you butcher and skin a cow? How do you take that cowhide and make it into leather? Some of you can probably do this, but this city girl has no idea. I know it can be done and I have a vague idea from things I’ve read but I have never had to make my own leather.
We need other people to function as a society. People with the skills and knowledge we don’t have. If it’s okay to take your cell phone to someone to fix, why is it not ok to ask for help from a professional mental health care provider? If it’s not a sign of weakness to acknowledge your lack of skill in cell phone repair or cowhide curing, why is it a sign of weakness to acknowledge you need medication to balance your brain chemistry? You wouldn’t be shamed for needing insulin or high cholesterol medication. You might worry about cost but no one would think less of you for needing it. Why is it different for mental health?
From the May 2019 American Hospital Association magazine, Trendwatch: “In 2013, expenditures for the treatment of mental health disorders reached $201 billion, surpassing spending for heart conditions by $54 billion and cancer by $79 billion. According to recent estimates, spending for behavioral health treatments is expected to total $280.5 billion in 2020, an increase from $171.7 billion in 2009. These projected expenditures reflect the need for institutional services and the high rate of growth in spending on behavioral health disorders. Behavioral health disorders also have broad indirect economic impacts on households and communities including reduced productivity, poorer educational outcomes and legal issues. Serious mental illness (mental health conditions that cause serious functional impairment such as major depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) costs the United States $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.”
It costs our nation to ignore these issues. To embrace the fantasy that the individual has total control over their lives and their success is turning away from those that need help. The truth is some people have a head start - they have better access to health care of all kinds, better access to education and more opportunity. But even those more fortunate in our country fall victim to toxic individualism and terminal uniqueness.
We need to embrace empathy. Sometimes that as easy as listening to a friend who’s having a bad day. Sometimes it means society must weigh the costs of maintaining the status quo and find new ways of helping each other. It means understanding that everyone has problems. No one is perfect. No one is exempt from illness of any kind.
We are stronger together. We are, each of us, our brother’s keeper. Always.