Recent dialogue surrounding mental health has often compared it to physical health. This perspective asks one basic question: what if we treated emotional pain like physical pain; mental illness like physical illness? I find this line of thinking to be powerful and compelling.
When we frame it that way, emotional trauma suddenly takes on the reality and gravity given to medical needs. Suddenly we have to pay attention to it, normalize it like a broken arm or stomach flu. We’re asked to respect someone’s episode like we do sick days, and to refrain from asking for justification.
Learning to respect another’s mental health like their physical health is acutely important, but I think the analogy can offer something else to the conversation. Let’s say someone breaks a bone. We can call this person “Kai”. Kai will likely have to put their arm in a cast to make sure it heals. As a society, we expect that Kai will address their injury by visiting a doctor and going through treatment.
We would be confused and upset if they didn’t treat their injury, and instead let their body to fend for itself. No one, including Kai, expects their arm to simply heal on its own. What would happen if they didn’t address it? It depends on the exact injury, but it would heal improperly, limit and change their mobility, and continue hurting Kai for a long, long time.
Thankfully, this is unlikely to ever happen, because there is a protocol we know to follow when our body suffers a trauma. We seek help. We take steps to heal. We know these things won’t heal properly on their own, and we certainly don’t force them to. But when it comes to our emotional injuries, this is often exactly what we expect.
To talk about “emotional injuries”, we need to widen our understanding of what counts as trauma. Trauma is too-often stuffed into the requirement of having to be “serious enough”. As in, “it's only a trauma if it is the same caliber as war, a car accident, or sexual violence”. These things are all unquestionably traumatic, but many smaller scale events or trends are traumatic for the individual person— whether or not that person acknowledges the effects.
Too often we ignore what has harmed us, expecting our emotional selves to move on and resolve the injury without providing any care to what hurts. If the residual effects continue to pop up in our lives we might ask— "what’s wrong with me?"—a question we would never demand of a known medical problem.
Maybe the answer to this unfair question could be: there is nothing wrong with you, you just never took the necessary steps to heal. Maybe this analogy can be seen as a call to action on the part of the one in pain. With the help of others, you can take care of yourself. You can heal. You have the power to address your pain.
No one should walk around with a naked, broken arm. That arm deserves a cast.