The subtle (and not so subtle) shaming of mental illnesses
So, a commenter on a recent story I wrote mentioned that she didn’t tell people about her anxiety because they would accuse her of making it up for attention. That comment pushed a button in my head. It’s a story I’ve heard before, from a variety of friends with anxiety disorders. “You’re just making it up.”
Mental illness is an invisible illness, impossible to diagnose on sight. When somebody tells you about mental illness, you can’t confirm or deny it, you have to take their word for it. Their actions may influence the value of that word, but there are plenty of perfectly “normal” people who struggle every day.
When I tell people about my bipolar, the almost universal response is “I never would’ve guessed.” That’s why, when somebody you’ve known for a while starts having a panic attack, it can come out of the blue. They seemed so…normal. Why are they reacting like this?
The natural response is to discard the outlier. Obviously, the panic attack is a one-time thing. It’s obviously not indicative of any kind of illness since you haven’t seen it before. Obviously. They must be doing it for attention.
The premise that somebody is doing something strange to get attention is used in all sorts of scenarios. Whether it’s avoiding contact with an abuser (“it’s just a hug, it’s not that bad”), reacting negatively to external stimuli (“it’s just fireworks, don’t be a baby”), or experiencing suicidal depression (“life is tough for a lot of people, quit bitching”), there’s always a reason why it’s just attention-seeking.
In this way, the stigma of mental illness continues to steamroll a lot of warning signs.
When a coworker who is more stressed than usual (“we’re all under a lot of stress, just deal with it”) ends up in the hospital or jail due to a mental breakdown (“I had no idea that he was having such a hard time”).
When a friend with a history of abuse (“you haven’t lived with him for years, just get over it”) winds up on drugs and homeless (“you could’ve come to me for help!”).
When your spouse who seems a bit more depressed lately (“cheer up, there’s a lot to be happy about!”) dies by suicide (“I wish he would’ve told me”).
After a high-profile suicide, people always wonder how a successful person who didn’t show any signs of illness could end their life. When a close friend ends their life, people wonder why they didn’t talk to anyone.
The answer is that they probably did show signs and talk to people. Anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts are punchlines in modern society, and not just to people who aren’t anxious, depressed, or suicidal. People who are suicidally depressed crack jokes about how anxious or depressed or suicidal they are, often to make themselves feel better.
My wife and I went through a tough time a while back where we were both suicidal, and one of us commented: “I’m suicidal, not stupid.” For whatever reason, this tickled us both, so it became a running joke until we managed to pull ourselves out of the funk a few months later. We were both suicidal the whole time.
Unfortunately, this only hides it more. You can’t treat every joke like a joke, because some people mean it, but you can’t treat every joke seriously, because a lot of people don’t. So what do you do?
The answer is the same answer I give to a lot of problems: open and honest communication. Have honest conversations with the people close to you about how you feel and what you live with and deal with, and encourage them to be honest with you.
Make it so your friends feel comfortable telling you about their problems and make it clear that you won’t judge them for their issues. If people feel that you are safe to talk to, they will be more honest about when they are just joking and when they are feeling legitimately depressed or anxious.
At the same time, remember to take care of yourself and not shoulder all of your friends’ burdens yourself. Self-care is important, and if you are not in a good position to take care of your own mental health needs, you shouldn’t take on too many of your friends’ needs either.
Encouraging dialogue about mental illness within your circles can help reduce the stigma, and encouraging self-care can help ensure that people know their limits and when to ask for help. It also encourages people to know what to look for when people are reaching out.
If we take our own mental health seriously, we learn to take each others’ mental health seriously. By taking everyone’s mental health seriously, we break down stigma. When we break down stigma, we as a society come to understand that people need to be believed about their mental health.
Most people don’t do “crazy” things for attention, they do them because they’re having a mental health crisis. People who act “crazy” in public places are almost always more a danger to themselves than to others. When we figure that out, we can help divert people away from jail and emergency rooms to the services that they need.
This is a lot of lofty ideals for a better society premised on just freaking talking to each other. I think open and honest communication would go a long way to solving many of the world’s problems, but that’s a bit ambitious. On a personal level, just be honest with yourself and your friends. Talk to each other. Imagine that.
So, for those of you with mental illness or other invisible illnesses that inhibit daily life, try to be up-front with the people close to you. For those of you without an invisible illness, believe your friends when they tell you about their struggles. Ostensibly, you are friends because you trust each other.
While you’re at it, try being more open to other people’s experiences. Everyone fights a battle you’ll probably never know about and probably can’t understand. Take them at their word when they tell you they’re struggling. Be open and empathetic to their pain and you’ll be a more compassionate person.
Hell, just talk to each other in general. Communication is the key to many things. Once we all understand that, we can start making progress on making the world that much better.