A quick note before I start: Folks, for a number of reasons December is always the busiest and hardest of months for me. So in the name of self-care – and, hopefully, of finishing another story before Christmas – I will be taking a break from blogging until the new year (barring any writing-related announcements). It’s been great to have you with me for website year one; I hope the end of the year is kind to you, and I’ll see you in January.
CW: suicidal thoughts
Yesterday I had a conversation that broke my heart.
I was asked to have a chat with an eighteen-year-old first-year university student whose doctor had prescribed antidepressants, but who was hesitant to take them. I’m not a doctor, nor a mental health practitioner, but I did my best as a user of antidepressants to answer questions about my own experience and based on that experience, to give advice that would help them understand the positives and negatives of the medication when making their decision.
I did my best and I didn’t cry, even when they asked me, this eighteen-year-old: Did it help you when you wanted to die?
One of their biggest fears was that medication could change who they are – a fear I’ve written about before. I told them how I asked Ben to keep an eye on me and let me know if I seemed different, and asked if they lived with anyone – was there someone they could ask to do the same?
They lived with their parents, I was told – but they couldn’t ask them. They weren’t going to tell their parents they were going on antidepressants. They hadn’t even told their parents about being diagnosed with depression.
The power of stigma
It’s easy for me to forget about the stigma that surrounds mental illness. I’m lucky – tremendously lucky – to have a community of friends and family many of whom have their own mental illness experiences, and all of whom are doing their best to be aware and supportive of mental health issues.
Post-diagnosis, I’ve rarely felt like I have to hide my anxiety, or the problems it causes, from the people in my life. I don’t feel like my mental illness is something to be ashamed of.
But mine is not a common experience. Studies routinely report numbers like 79% of people with depression experiencing discrimination over their condition. Meanwhile, even people who know someone with mental illness are likely to believe that schizophrenics are dangerous (they usually aren’t), that eating disorders and substance abuse disorders are self-inflicted (they aren’t), and that people with all kinds of mental illness are “hard to talk with.”
Small wonder, then, that people with mental illness don’t want to talk.
What’s so special about mental illness?
Our bones break. Our joints stiffen. Our skin itches and inflames. Our hearts stop. The human body is full of parts that don’t always run smoothly; we take it for granted that this organic frame designed to house us is imperfect.
We might be frustrated by our aches and illnesses, but we don’t usually see them as something abnormal, to be hidden away. Other people’s physical limitations can be cause for sympathy or, at times, vexation, but we don’t usually judge their entire character by their conditions.*
Why, then, do we react so differently to the frailties of that one organic system, the brain?
People with mental illness become journalists and mathematicians, prime minsters and psychiatrists. They have careers and families, they read books and play sport, they love, grieve, learn, and grow. In short, they do all the same things as people without mental disorders.
Yet we still react to the idea of mental illness with fear and mistrust. We make broad assumptions about what it says about a person (bipolar = hyperactive, depression = constantly negative). We minimise it with beliefs like “it’s not that bad” or “it’s all in your head” or “you just need to think positive.”
It’s so conditioned into us, we do this even when we’re the ones with mental illness.
When we keep mental illness to ourselves, we lose out in so many ways.
When we don’t talk to our doctors, we lose out on the chance of diagnosis and treatment, of receiving professional help (medication or otherwise) to manage our conditions so they don’t interfere so much in our lives. You know, just like you would talk to a doctor if you had pain in your leg that was making it hard to walk.
When we don’t talk to our friends or family, we lose out on the chance to have a solid support structure in our day-to-day lives. They people around us may not be doctors, but they’re the ones who can help us keep an eye on ourselves; the ones who can remind us of the things we forget when we’re doing badly (like that we need to up our dosage, or that life isn’t actually going to be hopeless forever); the ones who can be just a phone call away those times when we really need to not be alone. And, perhaps, they might have their own mental health stories to share, to help us feel less isolated.
If we don’t talk to our bosses or workmates, we lose out on the chance to build a working life where we can concentrate on doing a good job without having to hide our bad days and our bad weeks. This one is a trickier call, mind you – even though Australian workplace law includes protections from discrimination for mental illness, some bosses and some workplaces just aren’t safe spaces for that kind of discussion. But if you feel safe to do so, it can make a big difference to talk to someone who can help (or at least understand) when you’re struggling at work.
Fighting the stigma
The only way I know of to help the next eighteen-year-old not feel like they have to hide their depression from their family is to strip away the stigma of mental illness.
If you have mental illness and you feel up to talking about it, talk about it. It doesn’t have to be a Very Special Episode – it can just be something that comes up from time to time. Ugh, I had the worst day yesterday – brain weasels everywhere. I couldn’t even get out of bed. Oh yeah, I’m trying a new medication, seems to be working so far but it’s too early to really say.
If you know someone with mental illness, treat them like you would treat someone with arthritis or migraines: recognise that they have a condition that impacts their life sometimes, but don’t assume who they are is defined by their condition, or make pre-judgements about what they can and cannot do. Don’t assume the things you might have heard or read mean you know what their condition feels like to them.
Even if you don’t know anyone with mental illness (or don’t think you do), think about the assumptions you make when you hear about someone with mental illness, and how your reaction might be colouring the impressions of people around you – any of whom might have a mental condition you don’t know about. Don’t call people “OCD” or “schizo.” Don’t laugh mental illness off or say someone should “just get over it.” Don’t talk about someone’s mental illness as if it defines who they are.
*There are exceptions, of course – those conditions, especially chronic or outwardly visible, that carry stigma of their own. Consistency in how we view the world has never been society’s strong suit.