Mental health awareness is being raised everywhere at the moment. It is a vital step towards ending the stigma surrounding mental health. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it is a start. Stigma is still out there and it is silencing people struggling who need our help!
I spent a lot of my adolescence numbing the pain. I'd get wasted most nights, it meant I didn't have to face the reality of my existence and the 1001 thoughts running through my head would be temporarily slowed down. I was on top of the world, the sadness and pain would be pushed down but then the hangover would kick in.
I actually did try to reach out for help. I remember standing in front of the people who society tells you would help you no matter what and saying what I did and why. The response: uncomfortable glances and shifting and "You shouldn't do that". Then it was buried and to this day no one has ever mentioned it. Once, I asked to see a counsellor and even went to the doctors to get the ball rolling. But because I felt completely unsupported and isolated from those closest to me I couldn’t go through with it.
Those experiences made me feel ashamed and that I had to keep my mouth shut. I felt that I should never burden others with my problems or make them uncomfortable. I was made to feel that someone more important had it worse than me and they were the priority and I was the problem.
I remember feeling terrified whilst uttering the words and terrified that someone knew my secret. I learnt to smile on the outside and fall apart on the inside. And no, I was not an addict. I only did this when my illness showed up, hung about and refused to leave. I was self-destructive and thought I deserved what was happening to me.
Mental illness stigma can make things worse for those struggling and can delay or impede them getting the help they need. The misconceptions still exist that people with mental health problems are dangerous, violent, criminal and unable to live a "normal" life. The media often doesn't help with these views either.
Here are some of the things that have been said to me, and people I know, when struggling with a mental health problem.
- Why would you want to burden other people?
- Taking medication makes you weak.
- Stop attention seeking.
- YOU ARE CRAZY
- Therapy is for crazy people
- Other people have it worse.
- You should appreciate what you have.
- It's all in your head.
- They have an actual physical illness, you don't.
- They have suffered more than you.
- Suck it up.
- Man up.
- Just deal with it
The list could go on......
Unhelpful and harmful comments like these are still being said to people who get up every morning and dread facing another day.
If you're sat there gossiping about Susan who has had it rough lately but needs to pull herself together and get over it, then you're belittling someone’s mental health. The person you're speaking to could be struggling in silence and you are reinforcing their belief that they should be.
The advice of opening up and asking for help is well meant. But we don’t want to be a burden. The shame and guilt are overwhelming; the fear of being rejected is suffocating. Being thought of as selfish and believing them, being made to feel worthless and struggling in silence is hell. Yet being belittled and having every bad thought confirmed isn’t any better.
Depression can have a bad end game. People never really understand that until it happens. More than one life is affected when it does happen and there aren’t always signs. Yet if there is even the slightest hint that someone is struggling or if they have outright told you, then step up. There is no shame in having a mental illness. Don’t wait until someone’s asking for help. Someone struggling with a mental health problem may never ask, not because they expect your help, or don’t want it, but because they don’t want to burden you.
The world still needs to catch up. Hidden illnesses are still illnesses and no matter what they are, these people deserve empathy and understanding. Think before you speak.
One of the best ways to challenge the stigma, is to talk to or hear from people with experience of mental health problems. Be part of the solution.