Ahhh...mental illness. What image just popped into your head?  A mute, glassy-eyed woman in hospital PJs, wandering aimlessly around a hospital ward? A homeless man on the corner of the street talking to invisible people? These are just a couple of stereotypes you have been exposed to. We, the consumers (that’s what they call the mentally ill these days), are nothing like this. So let’s play ‘find the mentally ill person.’

Does he talk to himself or have imaginary friends? That covers anyone under 12. Is she prone to emotional outburst and cries at the drop of a hat? Sorry all you hormonal women aged 12 to 70. Do they become agitated or disturbed in crowds? Strike three for football diehards.

 Have you found us yet? 

Let’s narrow it down. I’ve lived with mental illness all my adult life. I’m your friend, your lover, your daughter, your mother. I’m in your class, I stand in line with you at the café, I work in the cubicle behind you, play basketball with you, go to church with you.

Got me yet? No? I get high distinctions at uni, I laugh with the guys at the pub, giggle with the girls on movie night, and even have a joke with the boss. I am your colleague, your pupil, your partner, your boss, your dentist or maybe just that girl who sits at the back of the bus. I appear to be in touch with my senses.

So, how does one make sense of mental illness? For so many of us, our senses are our experience of mental illness. If you really want to know me, I invite you to sense it with me.

Envision a sunset. Sunburnt oranges and blazing reds stretch across an indigo sky. Voluminous black clouds billow and lightning flashes, blinding, yet leaving an after image that pauses forever and vanishes in seconds. Darkness descends obscuring all view. This could be your mental illness.

Listen to the background buzz in a food court. Cappuccino machines gush, snatches of conversation mingle with bubbling laughter, the shrill screams of a lost child rise above the din. All voice is disrupted and sound is polluted. This could be your mental illness.

Stand in a bakery first thing in the morning. Inhale. Warm yeast teases the nostrils, freshly brewed coffee tantalises with its rich fragrance, and you close your eyes...bliss. A blast of putrid wind invades, violating your pleasure like an unwelcome intruder in the room. This could be your mental illness.

Catch your breath at the touch of a lover, stay a moment longer in the hug of a child, then have the comfort wrenched away, replaced by a stinging slap. This could be your mental illness.

Sip a mellow wine. Savour the sweet berry taste swirling in your mouth, a delicate citrus tang teases with its tartness. The sweetness sours and the brew curdles becoming vile acid in your throat. This could be your mental illness.

It doesn’t sound pleasant does it?  No experience of mental illness is. To those who can relate to this, know you are not alone, in our reality you are one of the crowd. To those who cannot relate, stop next time you are in a crowd. Do you feel alone? Of all the senses we have, the best one to use when trying to understand mental illness is common sense, because mental illness is common, and none of us should ever live with the sense of being alone.

Fiona L Browning 

Wellways Helpline is an information, support and referral service that provides information to people experiencing mental health issues, as well as their family, friends and carers. Please call us on 1300 111 500 if you need to chat.