There are many, many prejudices attached to the term ‘mental health’. And while there are plenty of websites and writers out there who are willing to try to smash through the stigma that surrounds mental illness, it can be a little more complex (and scary) figuring out your own views when you are going through it yourself.
As so many of you have mentioned in your comments and reactions to my past posts (thank you), the stigma around mental illness is a very real and debilitating thing for a lot of people. For those of you who are lucky enough to be leading prejudice free lives, a quick search on Google should bring up enough links to convince you that these prejudices are anything but few and far between.
So I would like to explore just a few of these myths about mental illness a little more, focusing on the ones that I felt affected me most- exploring why the stigma might exist, what is the reality, and, more importantly in my opinion, how these sort of prejudices can really affect a person’s view of themselves in a detrimental way when they are already struggling with such an illness.
While trying to include well researched fact in my explanations, I will also be drawing from my own experiences. I’m not trying to say that every person with mental health problems will feel the same way that I did, but I do hope that you might at least be able to empathise with me, and perhaps begin to understand the damage that your prejudices can have on my self-worth.
So here goes…
People with mental health problems are lazy and/or weak
Mental illness can be both exhausting and scary, making just getting out of bed in the morning a full on battle with your own mind. It’s understandable perhaps, that to someone on the outside this may come across as pure laziness, but to the person going through it? The effort of living with a mental illness can be completely overwhelming. If someone has just run a marathon, would you be more understanding to their fatigue? Just because it’s not a visible, physical effort that you can see, doesn’t make it any less real for them.
And it can be even harder when you apply that prejudice to yourself. While I would be the first to forgive anyone else in that situation, I spent many weeks bullying myself for being lazy, selfish, and weak- I told myself that I was just taking advantage of my privileges in not wanting to get up and go to work, and being a coward by not facing the realities of life like everyone else my age seemed to be. Needless to say, this helped no-one, least of all me.
It was only after a few weeks of not being able to leave my bed that I was sort of forced into accepting that, ok, I’m too exhausted to get up today, so let’s see what I can do instead, and then maybe I’d read a book, or watch a film, and stop feeling so guilty all the time. That guilt is something that I still sometimes struggle with, even now, when I know that rationally I’m not being lazy, or weak, that I am living with an illness, and that I need to look after myself and rest. And be nice to myself. So try to respect the time and space that you, your body and your mind needs, and try not to feel so guilty, although I know as much as anyone that it is much easier said than done.
Another myth: Depression is just something that happens in life, and these people need to ‘pull their socks up’ and get on with it
Depression is not the same thing as feeling sad. When they run out of those glorious cinnamon/caramel waffles in Aldi, I feel ‘sad’. When I can’t watch Peaky Blinders on Netflix in this country, I feel ‘sad’. Needless to say, depression runs much deeper. It is not an emotion, but rather a malfunction in the very way that the brain filters your experience, affecting how you consequently perceive the world around you. Telling someone with depression to ‘get over it’ is like going to someone with Alzheimer’s and telling them to pull themselves together and remember their name and that a pyjama shirt is not an acceptable replacement for a coat.
Myth three: Anxiety is just part of a ‘stressy personality’
From the outside, anxiety can just look like stress gone into overdrive, and, in a way, that’s exactly what it is. But for someone struggling with anxiety, it is much more than just breaking into a sweat and feeling butterflies. It can be all-consuming and completely crushing. I’ll go into more detail about what anxiety is like in my experience another time. But for now, anxiety is an illness just like depression, running much deeper than someone who is simply being ‘uptight’. What’s more, anxiety is not rational. It can be set off by anything, any time, and might not even be linked to what you consider as ‘stressful situations’ (eg. pressure at work, time-keeping problems, running out of money etc.). Once again, I’d like to highlight the fact that everyone’s experience of anxiety is different. While my triggers are what I consider to be ‘less rational’, it can be totally different for someone else.
As I only developed anxiety recently (within the last six months), the idea that it was part of my personality really, really hit me to begin with. I felt anger and resentment at myself for ‘allowing’ myself to get ‘stressed out’, and for not being ‘chilled’ enough, or ‘relaxed’ enough, as I always tried to be in front of others. And maybe there’s a paradox in the trying, but I never felt like I was a particularly ‘on-edge’ sort of person. I felt like I was generally in control of my stress levels, and would only get ‘on-edge’ when I needed to be; in a sports competition, or on stage, or before an exam, for example. In fact I could always say with unashamed confidence, that I have a very open personality; I am quick to laugh, and more than happy to make a fool of myself at any given opportunity. I don’t consider anxiety, therefore, as a ‘natural part’ of my personality, but that didn’t stop me from worrying about it being so initially. As if I needed more reason to worry already. It’s a vicious cycle. Read more about it in a future blog post, but for now, try for your own sake to let this idea go. Again, easier said than done.
The final myth (for now): People who have a mental health problems are choosing to be ill and/or attention seekers
You see that word there, ‘illness’? That’s probably not something anyone in their right mind would choose. And if they do choose it? I repeat, they’re probably not in their right mind, and therefore might need some sort of guidance. Health, in general, is not something that people choose to jeopardise.
For a while, I felt like I had somehow, somewhere along the way in life, chosen this path towards mental illness. I thought that I must have surely seen the signs and chosen to ignore them, allowed the problems to grow, and, ultimately, brought this illness upon myself. This idea especially manifested itself in memories of the way that I used to watch episodes of Skins when I was at school, see these tragically messed-up but fascinatingly interesting (to me) teenagers with exciting drama-filled lives, and wish I could be a little more like them. The same idea kept reoccurring as I got older, when I would read about my favourite musicians, artists, or actors, all of whom seemed to lead torturous mental existences in a world that didn’t understand them. It’s a disturbing prospect, when the majority of your idols are ‘messed up’ in some way, and you feel like you can either choose to join them, and suffer, or simply never reach their heights of genius. But, of course, you can’t will yourself into illness, just as much as you can’t will yourself into genius. Yes, maybe there are some cases where people ‘play up’ to their illness for various reasons and/or pressures (Colin Craven in The Secret Garden being a classic, if somewhat fictional, example). But that is a very different case to becoming ill by your wish alone.
Eventually, whether right or wrong, I learnt to accept that, whatever the ‘reason’ behind my illness (if there is one at all), I am where I am, and, as is the nature of life, I can only deal with what is before me. In short, what’s done is done regardless of blame. And, as much as I wish I wasn’t in this unpleasant situation, in the words of Gandalf the Grey, ‘So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.’ Cheers, Gandalf, you were always there.
As for the idea that people with mental health problems are attention seeking, just think about everything I’ve said above- about the overwhelming effort it takes just to get out of bed every morning, about the torture and guilt that we might put ourselves through to be better, and about the sheer terror of an anxiety attack that can happen at anytime, in any place, and can literally make you feel like you’re dying. I like to think that anyone with an ounce of perspective here can hopefully see that this is not an act designed to get attention. And if it is? What you’re probably seeing is a desperate cry for help, not a willingly inflicted self-publicity stunt.
As for my experience? I used to worry that telling people about my mental health would come across as attention seeking, and that I had to suffer for a certain amount of time in silence before anyone would take me seriously. This, of course, did me no good, and also wasn’t true. After years, I eventually came to terms with it and began to tell people I trusted, gently, and honestly. And my friends? My marvellous, marvellous friends? Well, I feel like they just respect me all the more for even trying to be open about it. All of the wonderful messages that you guys have sent me only confirm this (thank you, again- they really mean the world to me). As one of my housemates sagely said earlier, at the end of the day, if you find yourself worrying that you are attention seeking, the chances are, that you’re probably not.
I hope this helps someone out there on this cold and stormy Tuesday.
Please do use the comments box below to let me know your thoughts, or get in touch another way- talking is always welcome here 🙂
Stay breezy, Roo xx