Why We All Need to Understand That Mental Health Problems Don’t Look a Certain Way

I’ve talked before about how you can ‘appear to have it all’ and still have depression but I think there’s still a very important conversation that needs to be had about just what mental health looks like.

You’re probably thinking ‘well mental health doesn’t look a certain way’ and that’s exactly my point. No mental health problem has a set look, so why do we often act as though they do?

I’ve been told so many times before that I ‘don’t look like I have depression’ and I often wonder why it is that someone would consider me, someone who is medically diagnosed with depression, the visual of someone that doesn’t have a mental health problem.

Is it because I get up and go to about my day every day? Is it because I can still eat? Is it because I still go out with friends and smile and laugh?

What is it about me that doesn’t look like I have depression?

It really is the same with all mental health problems and I think it is essential that as a society, we become so aware of the fact that mental health doesn’t have a set appearance, it portrays itself differently in each individual and every person responds to their mental health problems differently, so how could we possibly ever think we can identify whether someone is suffering with something like depression by their looks or their lifestyle?

I often feel guilty for not ‘appearing to have depression’ yet saying I’m suffering badly. I feel like a fake for saying that in my mind, I don’t know how I’m going to get from one day to the next yet in the next breathe, I can go to go about my day, go out for a meal with friends or get on with daily life with a smile on my face.

I sometimes tell myself that it’s all in my head, I’m a liar for saying I have depression, I’m just in a bad mood or not feeling it today. I bully myself that because I still go to work, get dressed up, put on a smile day in and day out that I’m fine and need to stop moaning.

It isn’t just depression though, it’s the same with all mental health problems. I have Complex PTSD and Dissociative Disorder. You would not know that unless I told you. My family know the symtoms and recognise the alters but other people wouldn’t.

I have had times where I have suffered terrible anxiety and although I have had panic attacks that fit the generic criteria such as shaking, crying, difficulty breathing, I have also had panic attacks in complete silence and with a smile on my face yet inside my chest, my heart is pumping, my throat is closing and my brain is going crazy with terrified thoughts. You just never know.

Approximately one in four of us in the Australia are currently suffering with some kind of mental health problem. When you think that 25% of us are suffering, how is it possible that all of our symptoms and signs of suffering would look exactly the same?

For a long time, we were led to believe that depression looked like staying in bed all day, crying constantly, not eating, not socialising but in reality? Many people with depression never miss a day of work, eat entirely normally and still spend time with those closest to them, often without saying a word about how they’re feeling.

We’ve been conditioned to think people with eating disorders are underweight, come across as fussy eaters and are simply too frail to function – not always. Some sufferers of eating disorders do appear in that way but others struggle behind closed doors and never let the reality of their problem see the light.

Anxiety isn’t always biting your nails, hyperventilating and collapsing with panic. Anxiety can be a whirlwind of thoughts in your head, making your judgement clouded and your rationale skewed, all hidden with a smile.

PTSD can be waking up in the night screaming, irrational or aggressive behaviour and a fear of leaving the house but PTSD can also be quiet yet harrowing flashbacks when you least expect them, a silent fear of seeing a certain person or place, a daily battle to leave the house in case something triggers your memory, all masked by a polished appearance and the ability to hide your thoughts.

These stereotypes of what mental health looks like are so damaging and although we’re starting to speak more about the reality of living with a mental health problem, we still need to keep this conversation open and allow people to be believed and listened to when they say they’re suffering, despite their appearance or lifestyle.

Not being believed is one of the most dangerous things to happen to someone suffering with mental health. There is no right or wrong way to portray your struggles, you do not become a better or worse person for the way you handle your mental health.

If you’ve got depression and you don’t get up today, that is fine but it is equally ok if you did get up and forced yourself to work. If you dealt with that panic attack in silence, that’s fine but if you cried and shook, that is fine too. If you’re handling your eating disorder without saying a word and eating normally, you’re still allowed to ask for help, in the same way you’re entitled to support if food has become your daily enemy or if flashbacks from PTSD that you just can’t face.

The help and support on offer for those suffering with mental health should not be defined by whether you appear to possess the normal signs and symptoms of the problem in question. We all deal with things differently and shouldn’t feel we have to change the way we handle our mental health struggles in order to get the help we need.

If you’re suffering today, whether to the outside world it looks like it or not then know you are not alone, you will be believed and you are entitled to ask for help.

Your friends, family and local GP are always reliable points of contact if you need help but if you’re not ready to speak out to those around you, Lifeline 13 14 11 is always there to help or whatever support line is in your country.

Never tell someone they don’t ‘look like they have depression’ or any other kind of mental health problem because you just never know what happens behind closed door or behind smiling faces. Be kind always and if someone confides in you, try to be the support they need because opening up can be the hardest thing in the world.

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I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin

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