For the first article in our mini-series on Mental Health, Cara opens with the importance of destigmatising mental illnesses.
Trigger warning: this article contains references to mental illnesses and suicide.
In today’s world, we often hear about the stigma attached to mental health. There are more conversations about mental health now than ever before, but there’s still a noticeable gap in the conversations that are taking place. People aren’t being honest about the brutality of experiencing a mental illness, what it’s really like and what it involves. Those who have not experienced mental health problems won’t understand the suffering that comes along with it. Each person experiences a mental illness differently, and therefore it’s impossible to explain a unanimous experience of it. This article will break down the stigmas that still exist through an honest account of being mentally ill, and what needs to be done to confront the stereotypes that exist when talking about specific mental health disorders.
Why is there still a stigma attached to mental health?
Stigmas often circulate when there is a lack of understanding or education on a particular topic. The stigma around mental health has always existed, and there has even been points in time where people have refused to believe that mental illnesses even exist. A significant reason why there is still such a prominent stigma is because mental health issues are extremely difficult to understand (especially for the people who haven’t experienced any), which makes it harder to empathise.
Mental health is not spoken about in enough detail for those without mental health problems to fully understand, nor is what it means to have a clinical mental illness. There is this false assumption that people who are struggling mentally must have a justified reason for being depressed or anxious. However, clinical mental health problems occur due to a chemical imbalance in the brain that fails to produce enough serotonin (the happy hormone). Yes, tragedies and life events do impact mental health, but the formula of hormones in the brain is what causes a mental illness, and this can happen without reason. There can be so many contributions to this imbalance, so it would be impossible to pinpoint a single reason why someone feels the way they do. Telling someone they need a reason to struggle mentally is likely to worsen the effects of their mental illness, and contribute to the harmful stigmas that exist around mental health.
You’ve probably heard the stigmas around mental health in conversation without even realising. Below, I’ve listed some of the most common stigmas around different mental illnesses:
- People with mental illnesses are crazy or dangerous.
- People with mental illnesses are not normal.
- You need a reason to be depressed or anxious.
- Not understanding that mental illnesses can impact anybody.
- You’re not ill if you have a mental illness.
- Anxiety is not a real mental illness.
- Misusing the word ‘depressed’ because someone feels sad.
- Misusing the term ‘OCD’ to describe someone who likes things clean or tidy.
- Only being aware or accepting of certain mental illnesses, and excluding others (schizophrenia and psychoses, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, PTSD).
The conversations that are growing in regards to depression and anxiety is a huge step forward in confronting mental health stigmas. However, the same conversations need to be had with the same acceptance and awareness about all types of mental health problems, including illnesses like schizophrenia, PTSD, bipolar and eating disorders.
What is it really like to have a mental illness?
Suffering with a mental illness is like you’re battling with your mind every single day. It’s not knowing if you’re going to wake up inspired and ready to tackle the day, or if you’ll wake up with a heavy chest and short of breath – wishing the day had never begun in the first place.
From my personal experience, mental health is a challenge. It’s a constant tug of war between trying to be the best version of yourself, and then not being strong enough to fight against the negativity. It’s a continuous, internal argument between the good and the bad. It’s a journey of learning about who you really are, and accepting how your brain works. It’s trying to be forgiving and understanding the nonsense that your brain makes you believe and play into. It’s trying to distinguish your thoughts from reality. It’s a weight on your chest that gets heavier in some scenarios and lighter in others. It’s a buzzing noise in the back of your head that gets louder or quieter depending on how well you can distract yourself from it. It’s wanting to be better. It’s not knowing why you feel the way you do. It’s constantly questioning everything: yourself, your mind, your behaviour, your thoughts, your perspective, your ability.
Being mentally ill suggests that it’s all in your head, but if anything, it impacts your body just as much as your mind. Mental illnesses make you tired, but the kind of tiredness that drains everything out of you, leaving you almost disconnected from your body. You don’t even have the energy to think straight or speak some days. A mental illness is extremely stressful, and we’re all aware of how much stress can impact the body – breakouts, hair loss, weight change. It impacts your appetite, overeating or not eating enough, no longer enjoying the food you once loved. You feel distant. From yourself, your friends, your family, your goals and your dreams. You’re unmotivated and hopeless on your bad days, struggling to find a reason in anything. Nothing makes you feel better. It’s a battle against the clock to feel okay again – a waiting game.
If we have regular conversations about the realities of mental health, there will be a better understanding of what it involves, and society will learn to empathise more with people struggling mentally. Suicide has been on the increase in recent years, and mental health has a huge impact on those who become suicidal. If just having open conversations about mental health, and trying to understand and support sufferers of mental illnesses could stop someone from taking their life – why are we not doing more of it? Talk to your family, your friends, your parents, your colleagues, whoever you can – start the conversation that needs to be had.
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