We share the details of our physical lives so willingly: our latest diet, our kid’s need for braces, maybe a family member struggling with heart disease. But when it comes to mental illness, everything is under wraps. The shame and stigma surrounding mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder and anxiety, are the biggest obstacles when it comes to getting help. It’s time we started looking at mental health the same way we do physical health.
My daughter broke her elbow when she was about seven years old, tripping over a rock in my yard. She came straight to us, her parents, got ushered to the emergency room, and was patched up promptly. But a few years later, in the throes of her first bout with depression, she didn’t go to us, and didn’t get medical help, so she wasn’t patched up immediately. (Not that depression is easily patched, if ever.) It was even more of an emergency than her broken arm, but she didn’t think shewas “sick,” and she was ashamed to talk about it or even admit it to herself. Now at the moment she is in a hospital finally getting the help she needs.
However, she is finding that some of her friends are not responding very well. Her best friend told her that she was not doing enough to help herself. That she had everything she needed. Good looks, good figure, good job, great girlfriend, plenty of money etc. This friend saw my daughter in the full throes of her violent panic attacks and knew she was suicidal yet this was all she could say to her. My daughter is devastated that her friend who she has known since she was six years old could say such things to her when she was clearly so unwell and in desperate need of support and help. This friend obviously has little understanding of mental health issues and is going to be of no support to my daughter. Unfortunately, I think it will in the long term affect their friendship.
Mental Health is no stranger to our family. I suffer from Complex PTSD and Dissociative Identity Disorder with co-morbid anxiety and depression. I have found that I have lost a lot of friends since becoming unwell and my first attempt at suicide and frequent bouts of self-harm. They just don’t get it. They can’t cope and don’t know what to say to me so the phone just stops ringing and dinner invitations dry up. I don’t get asked out to coffee anymore. It’s like I’m contagious!!! Mention childhood abuse and they run a mile. A few good friends have been fantastic and stuck with me through thick and thin and I will be forever grateful. They have not judged me but just been there when I needed them and importantly let me be normal when I was well and let me help them which I am capable of doing. They let me be me. That is what my daughter needs, friends who let her be herself despite her mental illness.
Unlike other health conditions, mental illness is often seen as a sign of weakness. We’d never tell someone with breast cancer to “just get over it” or work on their willpower, but that’s the advice people with eating disorders, substance abuse problems, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues hear all too often. And those suffering with mental illness also often think of it themselves as weakness. Journalist Andrew Solomon says:
People still think that it’s shameful if they have a mental illness. They think it shows personal weakness. They think it shows a failing. If it’s their children who have mental illness, they think it reflects their failure as parents.
I’ve lost people I’ve loved to suicide, and each time only the closest family members and friends knew the true cause of death. Maybe these deaths could’ve been prevented, maybe not. But we don’t talk about mental health enough–or, if we do, it’s often too late.
Those of us with mental health issues who ever do get up the nerve to talk to someone about them risk being doubted and criticised. “You don’t have real anxiety,” someone once told my daughter. “You have so much to be happy for, how can you be depressed?” a counselor once said to her (a counselor!). I’ve also heard people state that those who commit suicide are simply selfish and that others with mental illness were “just looking for attention.”
The truth is, mental illness is isolating for both the person with mental illness and those close to them. It makes everyone uncomfortable. As Andrew Steward said in his TEDxDU talk, “When someone breaks their arm, we rush to sign their cast. When someone is diagnosed with mental illness, we run the other way.”
Even worse, people with mental illness often face discrimination or abuse–not just in the workplace, but in the community and in hospitals too. When news breaks of crime or violent incidents, people are quick to ask if the person was schizophrenic, depressed, or bipolar. “The tendency to connect people’s crimes to mental illness diagnoses that are not in fact associated with criminality needs to go away,” Solomon says.
Our current mental health system doesn’t help much either, and only 41% of adults in the US with a health condition received mental health services in the past year. Not only can the cost of treatments be prohibitively expensive, it is frustratingly difficult to find a psychiatrist or therapist that can really treat you. In college, when I was first looking for help, one psychiatrist kept taking the Freudian approach with me and misinterpreting, I think, every relationship I mentioned, however slight. Another flat out told me he’d prescribe me medication but didn’t “do” counseling. Thanks, bub.
These kinds of things leave those of us with disorders feeling hopeless and less willing to speak up, hiding in shame rather than seeking support. According to the National Health Institute, most people with mental illness wait almost a decade after symptoms appear before seeking treatment.
But mental illness is just like any chronic physical condition. It can be managed with counseling and/or medication, and there will be both good and bad days. As debilitating as mental illness can be, it isn’t–and shouldn’t be–the defining characteristic of a person any more than, say, being allergic to pollen or having high blood pressure should be.
All that said, things are getting better. There’s more awareness these days about mental health issues and more support groups, thanks in large part to the internet. Many famous people are talking more openly about their experiences, like Wil Wheaton on depression and anxiety, Community creator Dan Harmon on Asperger’s, and Carrie Fisher on bipolar disorder.
Awareness weeks and months help too, like May’s Mental Health Awareness month. The best thing we can do, at any time, is talk about mental illness the way we talk about other health issues–openly, with empathy and a desire to understand, and separating what the person is suffering with from the person him- or herself. As Mental Health America says, “Sharing is the key to breaking down negative attitudes and misperceptions surrounding mental illnesses, and to show others that they are not alone in their feelings and their symptoms.” One day we will get rid of the social stigma that surrounds mental illness. It’s going to take work, but we hope that day comes soon.
For more information on CPTSD and other issues visit our YouTube Channel
If you need support or would like to connect with like-minded people join our Private and Closed online Facebook Group for Child Abuse Survivors and those with CPTSD. Click here to join