Our children inherit our fears. They aren't transmitted through the genes, rather through the language we use – words uttered with trepidation and slurs laced with venom and euphemisms that suggest the very subject is unspeakable.
Euphemisms such as, "he's not well".
I remember clearly the first time I heard the phrase.
Though only a child, I remember the gravity and irrevocability of it; the hush it would send around a room – the almost reverential silence. You knew there was nothing left to be said, for a life sentence had just been passed.
Nowadays we are more inclined to use vague, politically correct phrases.
We have mental health 'issues' rather than 'illnesses'; we go to 'psychiatric hospitals' rather than 'mental institutions'.
But the words are still potent. They are still imbued with solemnity.
We are slowly destigmatising the subject of mental illness, primarily by sanitising the language we use. But the fear – the fear of the unknown – is still there.
Stigma is just another word for fear, and at the most basic level we are all terrified of losing 'it' because we realise just how fragile 'it' is. Sanity is a tenuous construct.
Mental illness scares us because it could be us. We feel we have to bolster our own mental armour when we are around the mentally ill. We can't go 'there' as we don't want to lose 'it'.
From another aspect, it shows just how consciously connected we all are... and that scares us even more.
It's so much easier to conclude that someone is 'not well' than to try to make sense of their psyche or go to that place with them – a place that has no north and no reference points; and a place from which there seems to be no return.
So, some create distance. They treat people according to their labels and undermine their credibility and reliability – "she's not well".
There are two types: those who watched a mad woman with tattoos on her face on 'The Late Late Show' last weekend; and those who watched a passionate frontier thinker... who also happens to have tattoos on her face.
The former never peel back the label... whatever that label may be. They invalidate and alienate the mentally ill. They create a world in which it is 'us' and 'them'.
The latter see past the label. They see the light and the dark and they know how to discern between the two. They understand that mental illness is both a curse and a gift.
They know there is a link between creative genius and bi-polar disorder. They've looked around and thought, 'why is it always the smart people who get depression?' and wondered if ignorance is indeed bliss.
They've read about 'depressive realism' – the idea that those with depression may have a more accurate perception of the world. (We have to adapt a lot of self-delusions to survive in this world – the depressed have taken the blinkers off, according to this theory.)
They know that just as sociopaths and egomaniacs gravitate towards the media industry, that those who we call 'touched' or 'not all there' have often been gifted with a hypersensitivity that makes them wonderful guardians of children and animals and the natural world.
They know that a nervous breakdown (or breakthrough, depending on how you look at it) is the body's way of forcing you to take time out when you forget that you're not super-human.
They've considered the mental-health issues attributed to the visionaries of the past – Nikola Tesla, Isaac Newton, Beethoven – and they realise that humankind would not have evolved to where it is today without mental illness.
Perhaps that's why Socrates considered it a celestial gift.
And they have geographical perspective. They see the mental illnesses that are culture-bound in the western world just as they know that schizophrenics are revered as sages in certain tribal cultures.
This isn't to say that they celebrate or romanticise the subject. They know that those suffering would hand back these gifts just to be released from the horror of it all.
Rather they understand the duality of the experience. As those suffering try to find their way back to the light, they respect the shadows that they are fighting in the dark.
They develop their potential rather than limit their damage and they don't marginalise them or ask them to validate their decisions or opinions.
They would never treat them as a label, or a patient or a number.
Because they know that it's not 'us' and 'them'. They know that social perception is as much part of the healing process as therapy and medicine.
They know it could be them.
Just as we respect sexual, cultural, racial and religious diversity, we will some day come to respect neurodiversity.
And we will realise that it is a spectrum with no top or bottom; no right side or wrong side. We will realise that sanity is only gauged through our perception of insanity.
As Robert Owen said: "All the world is queer save thee and me...
... and even thou art a little queer."
This is the last day of the 'Irish Independent's' Mind Yourself coverage. The series concludes in the Sunday Independent's 'LIFE' magazine tomorrow. For more, see mindyourself.ie