Many people might think of a period of poor mental health as being incapable of getting out of bed in the morning, or a severe lack of motivation and reluctance to do anything. Certainly, for many people these symptoms are prominent at times.
However, some who are living with a mental illness, or generally struggling with mental health, are high-functioning. They still live out their day-to-day lives like normal. They go to work, socialise, and function like anyone else.
Unfortunately, because they seem perfectly ‘normal’ on the outside, when they choose to be open about their mental health, they’re often met with the phrase, ‘you can’t be dealing with that much if you’re still able to get out of bed in the morning’.
A terribly frustrating sentence that I, as someone who is high-functioning, and others with similar conditions hear far too often. Although I’m sure (well, I hope!) these comments aren’t intended to cause harm, and likely descend from ignorance around mental health in general, they really need to stop.
Having a high-functioning mental illness does not put you in a category above others dealing with mental health. It doesn’t mean you’ve got a strong grasp of your condition and understand how to manage it. It doesn’t mean your struggles are less than those who cannot function in the same way, and of course doesn’t mean yours are worse. Everyone’s issues are relative.
What it does mean is that you are trying to get on with your day, doing your best, all the while struggling to keep the impending anxiety, depression or other mental health issues hidden away.
I remember in 2016, I had an assessment with a mental health practitioner to discuss types of therapy I might benefit from.
During the assessment, I was asked a series of questions around how my mental health affects me on a day-to-day basis. I remember half way through the assessment she said, ‘So what help do you need exactly? People with mental health issues can barely get themselves out of the house, they have no motivation to do anything. Are you sure you’re not just having a bad few weeks?’. I understand she’s the professional, but unfortunately, she completely invalidated my mental wellbeing.
I panicked and immediately started backtracking. I felt like I had to lie about my symptoms because they didn’t seem ‘good’ or ‘correct’ enough to actually get any help, and that I was stupid for finally taking steps to get help.
Now of course, I’m not saying all mental health practitioners are like this; it’s just that in this instance, I didn’t have the best experience.
Thankfully, I pushed forward and was put on a waiting list to receive some help. Flash forward a few years and I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
What if I walked away from that assessment? Accepting that I had to have x, y and z as symptoms in order to be valid in what I was feeling? I might have continued living with mental health conditions that I didn’t understand, and no idea that I needed help.
From speaking to many who live with mental health issues and are high-functioning, I discovered that feeling invalidated is a common theme.
The stigma is slowly breaking as more of us are speaking out. I believe it’s incredibly important we erase this idea that you must behave in certain ways or display specific types of emotions and symptoms to truly have a mental health issue.
Every single person on this planet is unique, and so is their experience with mental health. If I was put in a room with several different people who had been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, we wouldn’t all behave in the same ways. It doesn’t mean each symptom associated with this mental illness will affect each and every one of us in the same way. The same applies to any mental health issue or illness.
I think we need to challenge the idea that we must tick a stereotypical box to have a ‘real’ mental health problem. Let’s not dismiss those who share their struggles, even if it seems they are functioning. I believe we have to stop invalidating people because we are conditioned to assume mental health appears a certain way, and we have to continue breaking the stigma.