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Surviving the Stigma of Mental Illness

Artwork By Nathan Kaseng Um

 

Content Warning: mental illness, depression, anxiety, panic attack, suicide, Trump, slurs against mental illness.

 

This piece is for everybody who has a mental illness, to let you know that you are not alone, that I see you, and that everything you think and feel is valid, but this piece is also for those who don’t have a mental illness. I encourage you to take this opportunity to develop a little bit of understanding for those of us with a mental illness (or five) and the struggles we face from a society which stigmatises, belittles, disregards and invalidates our truth.

 

Downside One: You feel like a liar.

Whenever somebody casually asks me how I’m going as they pass me in the hallway, I tell them I am fine, even when nothing could be further from the truth. I know that people don’t actually expect others to answer honestly. Can you imagine if we did? The lack of honesty with other people gets to me, because I work so hard to be honest with myself. It takes serious effort not to minimise my emotions, my thoughts and my capabilities at that moment. I find it hard to give myself permission not to finish my readings, leave my dishes dirty, or to eat junk food when I’m too anxious to concentrate. I have put a lot of effort into recognising that mental illness affects me and to not beat myself up about things I cannot control, so every time I tell someone I’m ‘fine, thanks’ I want to scream.

 

Downside Two: People still get mental illnesses confused with emotions.

People conflate depression with passing sadness; an anxiety disorder with a busy and stressful time. People who know constantly ask me how I’m feeling, the same way they’d ask after me if I had a cold; Have my sinuses cleared? Why am I sad again when I was sad last week? People fail to recognise that a mental illness can be an ongoing condition, and that it isn’t necessarily going to clear up over the weekend with some extra strength, non-drowsy cold and flu tablets. I call my mum in the midst of a panic attack and she sighs impatiently and asks what’s set me off now. A family friend tells me I’ll cheer up if I get a boyfriend. A medical professional tells me I need to do more exercise (ha), and practice mindfulness (ugh).

 

Downside Three: You discredit yourself.
I catch myself playing the ‘other people have it worse game’. It’s easy internalise all the mental illness stigma and start to ridicule your own inability to cope when you are constantly comparing yourself to people who are managing to get by with twice as many problems as you. Writing this, I’m questioning if I am mentally ill enough to have a valid opinion. When I’m not trapped in my bed, literally unable to get out, or locked in a bathroom cubicle because I don’t want to have to explain to onlookers that I’m having a panic attack, I wonder if I’m exaggerating, or if I’m just lazy or overly sensitive. I second-guess my own lived experiences until I spiral into self-blame. Another thing: how dare I be unhappy when I am so incredibly fortunate and privileged! I’m constantly winded by the notion that I don’t have a good enough reason for my mental illness.

 

Downside Four: Nobody seems to care about slurs, at all.

The festival was crazy. Donald Trump is a psycho. Haha, triggered. We didn’t have any coffee this morning and I wanted to die. Okay, the last one isn’t a slur, but it’s still incredibly harmful for people to bandy around as if it isn’t trivialising mental illness. The truth is, using these words is painful for everyone who is fighting against the stigma attached to mental illness. Your festival may have been a blast, but it wasn’t crazy. Donald Trump is an awful human being, but isn’t psycho. Being triggered is an awful experience that you shouldn’t joke about. Suicide is no laughing matter. Using these words is insensitive, no matter how you intended them. Please stop. I respect that some people have reclaimed some of these words in a similar way as gay or fat have been rebranded as badges of honour. This isn’t true for everyone. If you’ve never had a mental illness, it’s not your place to reclaim it.

 

Downside Five: You’re disillusioned, but no one else is.
I once met a girl who said she didn’t understand why people with mental illnesses didn’t just take medications to eliminate them. First, medications come with side effects. I’ve been so nauseated by medication that white bread and Zooper Doopers were all I could keep down. For some, it’s impossible to cope with side effects whilst still attending classes, going to work and socialising. Second of all, if you survive the side effects, medications usually take 4-6 weeks to start working, and then comes the rigmarole of getting your dosage right. There hasn’t been enough research into treatments for mental illness, and their efficacy is dependent on individual factors. If you somehow magically manage to get a medication that is right for you on the first try, then I am in awe. It took my sister two years to get the best balance of function vs side-effects available to her. Two years. hirdly, medication does not cure mental illness. Your symptoms are not eradicated after you finish the first pill bottle. Medication is there to lessen the symptoms of your mental illness, to make it easier to cope. Some people recover from their mental illnesses, and I don’t mean to imply that if you get a mental illness, you’re stuck with it forever. For some of us, though, that’s the reality. The path of medication isn’t a simple process guaranteeing positive results.

 

There are more than five downsides to living with a mental illness, and I’ll admit that what I’ve written might not apply to everyone living with a mental illness. Nevertheless, it’s important to have these conversations. We’ll never be rid of the stigma of mental illness if we don’t talk about the nuances of its effect on us, on our lives and how we see ourselves. Keep on keeping on.

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