Why You Might Want to Tell Everyone About Your Anxiety and Depression
Together, we can end the stigma around mental illness
I spent this morning at my primary care physician’s office, crying while wearing a gown that opens in the front.
The gown didn’t help. Neither did the part where they weighed me. But the rest of the appointment went better than I could have hoped. I went there to ask for medication to deal with my anxiety and depression, and left with a prescription. But more importantly, I felt that my doctor had listened to me and that we had a plan to deal with my situation. She also made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
“Listen, my husband is also a physician, and we’ve both seen a spike in prescriptions after the election,” she said, when I told her that my most recent problems began in 2016 and got worse after I had a baby and went back to work.
Of course, I can’t entirely blame Donald Trump or postpartum work-life balance challenges for my mental health problems. I’ve always struggled with anxiety and depression. I can remember trying to work out a math problem when I was in grade school. I hit a snag and thought, “Eh, who cares. We’re all going to die anyway.”
This is not the thought process of an entirely healthy 10-year-old.
Over the course of my life, I’ve taken various steps to cope with my mental illness, including several different medications, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, acupuncture, and mindfulness. Most have helped. None will ever change the fact that my wiring makes me prone to these problems. I will always have to go back to the drawing board and try something else. I will always be someone who struggles to maintain her mental health.
But one of the biggest things that’s helped me is being honest and open about my problems. Mental illness, like addiction, thrives in the dark. Admitting that I struggle is like throwing open the curtains and letting in the sunlight.
If you’re dealing with mental illness, you have a lot of company. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. suffers from mental illness each year; 1 in 25 “experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” Nearly 7 percent of adults have a major depressive episode each year, and over 18 percent have dealt with an anxiety disorder.
It’s almost certain that you or someone you know copes with mental health issues. But if you’re struggling, it’s entirely possible to think that you’re alone, or part of a small minority. Why? Because of stigma.
“Research suggests that the majority of people hold negative attitudes and stereotypes towards people with mental illness,” writes Michael Friedman, Ph.D., at Psychology Today. “From a young age children will refer to others as ‘crazy’ or ‘weird’; these terms are used commonly throughout adulthood as well.”
Friedman says that these stereotypes are worsened by media portrayals of violent offenders as mentally ill, and result in “social distancing,” which in turn leads to increased isolation and loneliness for sufferers.
“More, people with mental health issues recognize and internalize this stigma to develop a strong ‘self-stigma,’” Friedman writes. “This self-stigma will often undermine self-efficacy, resulting in a ‘why try’ attitude that can worsen prospects of recovery.”
To break the stigma, we need to challenge the stereotype. That means that a whole lot more mentally ill people have to stand up and be counted.
Of course, it’s easy to say that people should reveal their secrets to the world, and hard to do. And there are good reasons for not telling everyone about your mental health problems — see previous re: stigma.
It’s possible, for example, to lose your job for being mentally ill, despite the fact that it’s illegal for employers to discriminate against workers for this reason. Most states in the U.S. have employment-at-will, which means that workers can be fired for any (non-discriminatory) reason — or no reason at all. If you can’t prove that your employer let you go specifically because of mental illness, you might have trouble making your case. (Obviously, I’m not an employment lawyer, so consult one if you have questions.)
Further, it’s no one’s job to share their private life with others. If you’re not someone who likes strangers knowing your business, it’s not your responsibility to reveal it.
But if you have a little security — or if you’re a freelancer, like me, and used to the idea that there is no such thing — and you’re OK with sharing, you’ll do a lot of good by being up front about your struggles. You’ll make others feel less alone, and show that not everyone who deals with mental illness is someone who’ll be mentioned by all three of their names on the national news.
If you don’t want to share, you can still help break the stigma around mental illness by making small changes, such as:
- Not referring to things and people as “crazy” in an off-hand way. (I am hugely guilty of this. Just this morning, I called my new medication, “Mama’s Crazy Pills.” It’s a work in progress.)
- Challenging other people when they ascribe violent acts to mental illness. For example: “Yeah, 1 in 5 Americans are mentally ill. Obviously, 20 percent of us aren’t [insert violent or problematic behavior or characteristic here].”
- Supporting and protecting healthcare. Even if we get Medicare for All, we’ll have a long way to go to give mentally ill people the support they need. I have great insurance, because my husband is a nurse. I still pay out-of-pocket for therapy, because I’d hit my maximum number of visits in the first quarter every year. Access to mental health care improves other health outcomes and saves money for patients and insurers (or the state, in countries with socialized medicine).
- Whenever possible, taking care of yourself. As discussed, it’s tough to get the care you need in this country right now, but to the extent that you’re able, make it a priority. Don’t put yourself last on your list. You have a right to mental health.