How to ask for help when the very act of speaking up is the problem

So, here’s a conundrum for you. Your mental health is causing you concern. Maybe you have noticed feeling sad or anxious a lot of the time. Maybe you think about asking for help, but don’t know where to go, or maybe you don’t have the energy to start searching for it.

But then what if by admitting you need help, that vulnerability makes your situation even worse? Maybe you fear that it will make you look weak or helpless.

I learned first hand that when we are struggling, finding the voice to speak up and say so is the most amazing demonstration of strength. But what if your community doesn’t see it that way? Well that, my friends, is a problem I would like to extinguish.

This extreme pressure to appear strong, even invincible, in society’s perception of the term, is silencing so many voices. There are so many people that need to be heard and supported who end up suffering in silence. Which of course, only compounds a problem like depression, for example.

Personally, I feared that, as a medical doctor, if I told people that I was dealing with depression and anxious thoughts my clients and colleagues would think I wasn’t capable of helping them. I was afraid to appear weak.

Since I ‘came out’ of my depression closet on that TEDx stage a few years ago, I have connecting with other silently suffering souls around the world who feared sharing their need for help because of the stigma that the label of depressed, anxious or bipolar could mean. Hiding my depression from the world required that I put on a fake happy mask just to make it through the day. But it was taking a toll on my overall wellbeing, until I hit rock bottom.

Dr. Andrea’s first TEDx “Become Who You Really Are”

“I know now, as do many other highly functional depressed people that denying your need for help or delaying diagnosis and treatment is unnecessary.”

There should be no stigma attached to getting your mental health in check. Just as women get a pap smear and we send the kids to the dentist for a check up, making sure that our mind is at peace and we can cope with our emotions should be a natural part of our health conversations and proactive prevention plans.

I’m on a mission to destigmatize the labels we often hide, because they can limit us from living and expressing ourselves fully. And they can even lead us to an early grave through unhealthy coping mechanisms such as addictive substances, prescription medication, alcohol, sex, shopping and ultimately suicide.

While watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy this week I was happy to see that the writers portrayed Miranda as a highly capable, yet real individual, who sometimes over does life and yet admits to being treated for OCD by taking antidepressants.

Chandra Wilson as Dr. Miranda Bailey on ‘Grey’s Anatomy‘ Credit: Jennifer Clasen/ABC

There is an added pressure in minority cultures too. When you are not in the majority, you already start with the added pressure of trying to fit in and show your best side. I know this is prevalent in African-American society in the US.

Tierra Parsons, a counselor at Johnson C. Smith was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “African-American college students may have an unwillingness to seek any type of psychological help. There is a stigma attached to mental illness.”

We have all heard stories of students putting themselves under undue pressure and burning out, and it’s not hard to see where things are going wrong. They don’t feel that they can reach out for support, as they don’t want to appear weak, or as if they are complaining.

I can see where the pressure comes from. As a child I watched my mother put herself through medical school, working relentlessly and rarely complaining. So I have to wonder — if we are constantly “showing our best side”, being strong and not complaining — when do we get to let off a bit of steam?

I believe that self-care, even the simplest acts of taking little breaks throughout our days, is sorely lacking. We were born to do more than pay bills and die, were we not? So looking at how hard we push ourselves to fit into a societal mold, is it any wonder that many of us hit rock bottom at some point?

If you are familiar with my story, then you may already know just how far I pushed myself to appear strong and maintain my image of having it all together. I really had to hit the absolute bottom before giving myself the permission to stop trying to be who I thought I should be.

And my own personal purgatory may have been avoided, or at least exited earlier, had I not felt this immense pressure to do, be and have it all — in society’s sense of the term — all while suppressing my soul-based desires to sing, create, and live in France.

So as far as I can tell, we are looking at something of a vicious circle.

We get onto the path of being strong, doing what we are supposed to do, and then doing that relentlessly, believing that we will feel a sense of ‘purpose’ if only we do it well enough. But purpose doesn’t come.

We get tired, feel down, and start losing strength. This weakening of our spirit makes us retreat into ourselves, because we mustn’t show that weakness! So then, with our flame dampened, we carry on with the day-to-day keeping up of appearances, doing what we ‘should do’, so as to not show weakness. Until one day, it’s all too much.

The obvious way to break this cycle is to speak up. To say, “Hey, I’m unhappy. I need to change something!” To ask for help, and to accept support when it is offered.

So we simply must change this stigma around speaking up and asking for help. We need the world to know that it’s okay to struggle — in fact, it’s a sign of growth!

I know I’m not the first to put my hand up and say, “I’ve struggled with depression.” But I sure as heck won’t be the last either. There is still a really long way to go. We have started, now we just need more brave souls to step up and carry on the movement. The more of us who do, the more people can we help to liberate.

So are you ready, willing and able to join me? With the launch of my new book, I Love You, Me!’ which outlines my journey from depression to finding real self love — I’ve recently gathered a tribe of people around the world who are committed to supporting, nurturing and providing ongoing communication to those who wish to break free from labels, stigma and emotional pain.

I believe an international dialogue about mental health, emotional wellbeing, and living as our authentic self with real self love is long overdue. The Real Self Love Movement has begun! Through online meetups, live events, and my radio show we are gaining momentum. We are committed to supporting, inspiring and empowering one another on our collective mission to heal holistically, love wholeheartedly and, live authentically.

Learn more about the #RealSelfLove Movement and the book by visiting www.RealSelf.love

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Originally published at www.andreapennington.com on February 2, 2018.