May is Mental Health Awareness month, and something I want to take a little bit of time to write about since this is a cause that is near and dear to me. Mental health is tricky because, in contrast to many other diseases, you can’t always tell when someone is fighting the battle against mental illness. “Mental illness” itself is a term that carries a lot of negative connotations, making it difficult for people fighting against it to talk about their struggles. There’s a definite stigma attached to it and there are a lot of people who will talk about mental illness like it’s something that’s entirely made up or done for attention. In reality, it’s a daily fight that incredibly strong people put up every single day.
“Mental illness is just, like, depression or being bipolar, though, right?”
Nope. The first step in realizing that mental illness is something to be taken and treated seriously is to be aware of what it encompasses. This includes but is not limited to:
- Persistent depressive disorder
- Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- ADD and AD/HD
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Personality disorders
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Learning disabilities
- Mood disorders
- Panic disorders
Those are just some of the conditions that fall under the blanket of mental health. All of these have different subsets for different circumstances, experiences, and stages of life. No two experiences are entirely the same; in fact, many are really very different.
“Ok, but I think a lot of people just do it for attention.”
There are always going to be opportunists in any situation. There are always going to be people who see a way to exploit even their own conditions for some kind of gain. We have all probably known someone who seems to always have something wrong because they have learned that the more they complain, the more people will respond, and in their minds, that’s how they can reassure themselves that someone cares about them (add low self-esteem to the list of mental illnesses). It’s not, however, always so pleasant for people who are really susceptible to that kind of behavior (meaning that the negativity can be contagious). And no one wants to feel like they’re responsible for 100% of someone’s happiness, either.
At the same time, there are lots of people struggling silently or mostly silently because they’re afraid if they reach out for help, they’re going to get a reputation as someone who always has something wrong or as someone who is too needy. In my experience, people who are seeking that kind of attention may just need help finding help or a more positive outlet for their feelings and experiences. That in itself can be a fine line to walk.
“It’s all in your head. You just need to get past it.”
This is probably the worst thing you can say to someone battling a mental illness. Nothing alienates a person like having everything they’re feeling completely invalidated.
While I can’t speak personally about a great range of mental illnesses, I can speak about clinical depression and anxiety. When someone suggests I “just get over it,” it feels like they’re punching me in the soul (sorry if that sounds kind of dramatic, but it’s a pretty damn awful feeling). I would never choose to struggle with depression. I would never choose to have an anxiety disorder. Nobody chooses these things. And just like I didn’t flip a switch to turn them on, I can’t just flip a switch and turn them off. The only way out is through. It’s not always easy and I wish I could say that I always felt strong about it. I don’t. It’s an astoundingly lonely place to be sometimes because it feels like being on the outside looking in. It’s hard to talk to people about it because discussing your feelings with anyone makes you vulnerable even without the mental illness part. Add that in and it can be terrifying, not to mention the people you talk to won’t necessarily be able to relate to you or your experience. Circle back to the loneliness.
“Ew. Kill yourself. LoL.”
Of course, there are all kinds of insensitive things that people say to those battling mental illness. There are all kinds of horrible things people say in general, even when they don’t know they’re saying them to someone with a mental illness. Personally, I wish a giant hand would come down out of the sky and bitch-slap the hell out of anyone who ever says to another person, “kill yourself.” Teenagers, young adults, and really immature adults seem to really be on this phrase recently and I have no idea why, although it does make it easier to identify who the biggest asshole in the room is.
“But I didn’t mean it like that,” many of them say when someone calls them out on it.
Sorry, no. If you “don’t mean it like that,” then just don’t say it. Ever. Period.
And if you know someone who is or may be suicidal, please do not take that lightly. Get them help. Get them help now. Here’s some info:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
“You look fine. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
You can’t always see mental illness, which leads some people to believe that, if a person isn’t in bed or sobbing, they must be fine. (And they wonder why people exaggerate symptoms sometimes. Perhaps they just want to be taken seriously?)
“Hey, look. You’re smiling. You’re not depressed.”
People with depression can still smile. In fact, a lot of people with a variety of mental illnesses have learned to just go on like nothing is wrong, even if it is and even if they really want to talk to someone about it. You want to see a perfect example of how easy it is to smile and laugh your way through an intense internal struggle? Robin Williams.
Why I Care
Without going into too many details here, this is important to me because this is my life. I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (aka Clinical Depression) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder in early 2004. All of it comes and goes in waves. I’ve been in and out of therapy several times since 2002. And like many people with mental illness will tell you, sometimes things are fine, and sometimes you get hit out of nowhere. I’ve been doing pretty well lately, but I had two seemingly out-of-the-blue anxiety attacks last week — each lasting several hours. And that happens sometimes too. But it is something that, just based on things people have said to me over the years, I feel that not many people really understand or accept just yet. It’s a catch-22: if no one ever speaks up about it, everyone thinks they’re in it alone. But if you do speak up about it, there will be people who treat you like you’ve got a contagious disease or like you might be dangerous. What’s in this post is based on experiences that I’ve had and things I’ve seen, but there is so much more to mental illness. I haven’t even scratched the surface.
Having a mental illness doesn’t make you weak.
This is the final point I want to make to wrap this up (even though I haven’t even addressed the tip of the mental illness iceberg, so this post is by no means exhaustive). For some reason, there seems to be this idea that people struggling with mental illnesses are weak. Fighting a daily battle is really scary. It’s lonely. To even admit that you’re suffering is huge. To seek help and to allow others in and to allow them to help you — that’s strength. To wake up every day and keep going — that’s not only strong; it’s also courageous.
- Mental Health America
- Project Semicolon (“A semicolon is used when an author could’ve ended a sentence but chose not to. You are the author and the sentence is your life.”)
- Documentary (below): My Depression: The Up and Down and Up of It