There’s this old Buddhist story about a king that proposes a game to a group of monks. They must compete to identify an animal in a dark room. Whichever monk identifies the animal first will become the head monk at a temple the king is building.

Eager to demonstrate their wisdom to the king, to show they can truly see things as they are, the monks accept the challenge. They get sent into a pitch black room and begin to feel around with their hands.

One monk grabs a big flap of skin. “It’s a giant fruit bat, he shouts!” But another feels a big round belly and yells out: “Be careful! This is a hippopotamus. Did you know they’re actually the deadliest animal on the African continent?”

Yet another wraps his arms around a thick pillar. “The king has given us a trick question that you’ve all fallen for. It’s actually not an animal,” he declares confidently. “It’s a tree.”

“You’re all idiots,” says another. “Each characteristic you’ve mentioned belongs to a single animal, the rhinoceros. I know because I’m holding it’s horn.”

“Uh… I don’t know…” says one of the monks, his voice trembling. “That wouldn’t explain why a snake just slithered up the back of my robe!”

And all of the monks run screaming for the door but they can’t find it in the dark and slip and fall in the animal’s shit, a frustrated pile of monks. The king’s servants must come to the rescue with lanterns and the monks then see the elephant looming over them.

Can somebody please consider how the elephant feels about this competition?

When you’re dealing with mental illness, whether you’re trying to figure out a diagnosis or you’re working on recovery, whether you’re a patient or a healthcare professional, or somebody supporting a person that’s struggling, remember this elephant. Whatever your hand is on, it’s only a part of the beast.

When i was going through the mental health care system, I picked up a bunch of diagnoses, but that had as much to do with what I was aware of and presenting to the therapist as it had to do with their own expertise and ability to see beyond what I was showing them in the dark.

Now that I work in peer support, I get a lot of people coming to me with a massive list of mental illness labels they’ve had stuck on them or they’ve stuck on themselves. But you only have one brain. If it seems like an incredible burden to deal with so many illnesses, or you’ve heard that some are chronic, or some are more challenging to overcome than others, take a step back and try to see them as a single beast. You have mental health. And that’s a beast you can learn to ride.

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