those of you who’ve been following me for longer now already know that despite struggling with my mental health for almost a decade, i only started getting medical help about a year ago, and began therapy at the beginning of this year.
why did i wait that long? well, the answer is pretty simple: STIGMA. and even though it might seem like the stigma around talking about mental health is progressively lifting, it is still deeply rooted in how we perceive, and therefore, experience, mental illness(es) too. and that’s what i want to talk about today.
does that sound a bit confusing to you? let me break it down then.
(and, as always, i will try to explain my points on my personal story. however, that does not mean what i’m describing universally applies to everyone, of course)
this stigma is a very peculiar thing. not only that it is behind all the repercussions one faces when openly talking about own mental health (such as losing a job, friends, a place to stay, or, in fact, being at much higher risk of being met with police violence) and makes the people you want to confess to seem like real jerks letting you down and not really caring about you (because, thanks to the stigma, they have never learnt how to approach a mentally ill person), it also forces itself onto the mentally ill themselves.
due to the fact that the mental illness discussion has been frowned upon for so long, a lot of mystification surrounds how each mental illness actually influences those suffering from it. thus, there is an understanding (which is very wrong) that the symptoms and characteristics are the same for everyone, that every single mentally ill person experiences the illness in an exact same way. there’s a whole lot of other misconceptions attached to it too: that other people can “tell” how serious your illness is; that if you’re still able to somewhat function “it can’t be that bad;” that mental illness aren’t as serious as physical ones; that once you start getting medical help, you’ll be fine, and if not, you’re “not trying hard enough”; that your progress/recovery will be linear.
i believe that all these ideas really harm anyone who struggles with their mental health. how exactly? through a practice that i call “mental illness benchmarking,” something i recently discussed with my therapist. there is the generally approved image of what a certain mental illness looks and feels like, and that becomes a certain benchmark. a reference point, if you will. you know you feel bad and that your mental health is definitely not ok, so you try to check your symptoms and match them with these clean-cut categories. but wait, my experience doesn’t really fit anywhere? and, um, it’s actually not THAT bad. i can still go to work/study and have friends, i can’t really be ill, right? guess i’m just over-dramatizing, haha. so you shrug it off and go on with your days, and it keeps on getting worse and worse, but you’re still not confined to bed, surrounded by takeaway leftovers and snotty tissues (because that’s how depression, for example, is often presented), so “it’s not THAT bad.” and you do keep on questioning if you, maybe, but only maybe, might not really be mentally ill, but nah, it’s not that bad. until one day, you crack. and you realize you should have gotten help ages ago.
and that’s something that happened to me, actually. as some of you might already know, my dad also suffers from depression. when i was a teen, he cracked exactly like that, and his depression showed in quite the perfect media form: he just laid in bed, slept a lot, and was basically a ball of sadness. that was my only first-hand experience of someone suffering from mental illness, and for years, it was the benchmark for me. i had anorexia, self-harmed, planned my suicide, cried myself to sleep, but i couldn’t have been really ill, because i was still a very active and productive person. since the discussion around high-functioning mental illness only opened up years later, i believed that since i wasn’t that curled up ball of sadness, i couldn’t have actually been mentally ill. and i wasn’t always sad, i could still laugh and smile and stuff, how do you explain that, HA?
i had been failed by the society’s perception and definition of mental illnesses, which prevented me from doing anything about my mental health for years. i did not realize that all that extreme workaholism i definitely did exercise was in fact just a fight with my fear of being a failure, fuelled by the, back then, unnamed anxiety. i did not realize that being bitter and negative weren’t really my personality traits, but the depression overtaking my whole being. i had no idea each person experienced their mental illness differently, that the symptoms could change and heighten and overlap, and that, most of all, all i was feeling was valid.
all those years full of doubting if what i was going through was real, of down-playing my actual state of mind, and of persuading myself that it wasn’t that bad at all lead to where i am now – ruled out of “normal” life thanks to the depression and anxiety i left untreated for so long. i haven’t had a proper job for over two years, i dissociate every time i am faced with unknown situations or simply when i’m out of my safe space which is my room (which makes my long-distance studies incredibly difficult for me), unable to travel or be productive the same way as i used to be. while i know i am on a good track now, thanks to my therapist and psychiatrist, i often think of how everything could’ve been different if all this stigma didn’t influence how i—and others around me too—treated my own mental health.
i know that this is a real long read, but i felt a huge need to share it and, perhaps, help someone out there. the belief that mental illnesses have very specific and rigid characteristics needs to be destroyed; no, smashed to tiny little pieces, for god’s sake!
depression is not just about being sad and miserable 24/7.
anxiety is not just about overthinking everything.
bipolar disorder is not just about mood swings.
OCD is not just about liking things organized.
and so on.
if you feel like your mental health is not ok, don’t question yourself, don’t downplay it – go with your guts and try to get help. of course, medical help is not available to everyone, but there’s a lot of free support groups (even on Facebook), so that can be a start.
treat yourself right, ok, mate?