It’s all in your head.
You don’t need a break.
You’re not even trying to get better.
You just need to change your attitude and then you’ll be fine.
You’re letting this get in the way of your life.
Why don’t you just stop feeling that way?
You don’t need medication.
You’re talking yourself into feeling like this.
Why are you worrying over nothing?
Stop being stupid.
If you suffer from a mental illness, chances are you’ve heard at least one of these before. Some of these are things people have said to me personally; others are things said to and about sufferers of mental illnesses generally. But they all demonstrate a lack of understanding about the way mental illnesses work.
Often the people delivering these lines mean well. In my personal experience, most talk like this has come from close friends or family members. However, what they don’t realise is that they’re doing more harm than good.
Maybe it really is all in my head.
I don’t need to go to the doctor. I’m not sick.
Medication is for crazy people.
I’m just weak.
If I just suck it up, and then all of these bad feelings will go away.
I don’t need help.
The way the people around us handle our mental illness can play a big part in how we ourselves choose to handle it. Due to a combination of both comments that I received personally, and the general social stigma surrounding mental illness, I avoided discussing it with my doctor and getting a prescription for antidepressants for far longer than I should have. The above are all thoughts that I have had about my anxiety in the past, thoughts which prevented me from getting the treatment I really needed in order to begin recovering. And though it wasn’t the only reason I stayed silent for so long, social stigma surrounding mental illnesses was definitely a strong contributing factor.
I don’t claim to represent every mentally ill person ever. I can only speak from my own experiences, and draw on those of the people I know and have spoken to about their struggles. But I’d like to think that, as someone with a bona fide anxiety disorder, I’m qualified to help contribute to getting a constructive dialogue going between those who suffer from mental illnesses and those who don’t. Which is why I’m writing this, from me to you: a letter concerning some of the things that people with mental illnesses want the rest of society to know.
We’re ill. One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of people don’t know how to treat mental illnesses. I believe that the most constructive way to treat mental illnesses is as the illnesses that they are. Far too often, someone struggling with a mental illness is accused of “making it up”, “being lazy”, “seeking attention” and so on. We’re not doing any of those things. I think of my anxiety as a chronic illness that sometimes flares up, but most of the time can be managed with medication and the right lifestyle choices – not unlike a physical illness such as asthma. Telling us we’re not sick is only going to get in the way of us seeking the proper treatment for our illness.
We’re not choosing to be this way. Another common attitude towards the mentally ill is that they’re choosing to be miserable – that their symptoms are something they can just snap out of. This is not the case. I can tell you right now: I did not choose, when I was eighteen, to have my anxiety get so bad that some days I could barely get out of bed or leave my room, so bad that I missed out on a lot of opportunities, so bad I felt perpetually dizzy for months. I didn’t choose to start suffering from panic attacks almost every day, and for that to cause almost everything I did to become a source of fear.
Think of it this way: someone with a broken leg didn’t choose to break one of their bones in two, and to have to go through excruciating pain and months of healing afterwards. It’s the same with mental illness. It’s not a choice we’ve made; it’s a real ailment we’re struggling with and we don’t want it any more than you want us to have it.
I can get quite riled up when people imply (or sometimes explicitly state) that mental illness is a choice, because if I could choose, I would never have chosen this for myself. Or for anyone, ever.
We’re still people. Yes, we’re ill, and we’d like you to acknowledge that. But we’re still us, and we’d like very much for you to treat us the same as you did before you found out we had a mental illness. Our illness is only one part of us. Please look beyond our illness and try to see everything that makes us who we are.
We can’t just “get over” our mental illness. Imagine if one of your friends had come down with the flu and couldn’t make it out to see you that day. You’d never tell them that all they need to do to start feeling better is to “just get over it” and change their attitude. Recovering from the flu takes time, it takes rest, and it requires you to look after yourself and make sensible decisions, even if they mean cancelling plans to go out.
Mental illness is no different. Sometimes, even now, I cancel plans with people I really really like because my anxiety flares up. I do this because I’m learning to know my illness, to know when I can push myself and it will make me feel better, and when I should listen to my mind and get the rest I need, rather than going out and risking a panic attack in a public and/or unfamiliar place. It’s not something I like doing, but it’s 100% okay, because it’s what I need to do to look after myself and make sure my recovery is still my number one priority.
We aren’t weak. We might look that way when we’re crying all the time, when we’re afraid of leaving our rooms, when the tiniest things can set us off, when we struggle with so many things that to you are so mundane you don’t even think about them.
But we’re fucking strong. We’re survivors. The shit we’ve been through, it doesn’t make us any better or any worse than you, but it does mean that we’ve had to fight a lot harder than any normal person has just to be here. And that deserves recognition. So please don’t think we’re made of weaker mettle than you, especially on our bad days, because those are the days when we’re fighting the hardest.
And on that note..
Mental illness is serious. You might think it’s impossible to die from a mental illness, but sadly this is not the case. According to a report published by the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, mental illnesses “are the third-leading cause of health loss for New Zealanders” and that “[p]eople with mental illnesses are at a higher risk of suicide” than the general population.
Suicidal ideations and self-harm in the mentally ill are often misunderstood. A good friend of mine, who suffers from major depressive disorder (MDD), became addicted to self-harming as a result of her illness. She says that people would ask her why she did it, and why she didn’t just stop. She feels that self-harm is “often overlooked as just a petty issue”, rather than treated with the weight it deserves.
We can’t always explain what’s going on in our heads. When I have a panic attack, or even if I’m just feeling particularly anxious on a day, I’m not always able to identify what triggered it. Imagine saying “but why are you throwing up?” to someone who had a stomach bug, or “why did you have a seizure?” to someone who suffers from epilepsy. You just wouldn’t. And if you did, you wouldn’t expect any answer beyond “because I’m ill.”
We know it’s hard for you, too. We understand the amount of patience, understanding and respect mental illness demands. We understand that it’s not easy to watch someone you love and care for to go through something so awful. We understand if you feel frustrated and alienated and scared, if you’re not quite sure what to do. We understand that you worry. We understand that you’re not always going to get it. That’s why it’s so important that we work with you, and vice versa, to make life easier for both of us.
We appreciate you. Thank you for being there for us, even though it hasn’t always been easy. Thank you for your support, your friendship, your sympathy. We appreciate that a lot. We don’t expect you to fix us, or to always know how to help. All we want is for you to be there for us. We know that sometimes it’s going to feel like we’re pushing you away, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love you or appreciate what you do for us. We’re glad to have you in our lives.
Sometimes the best things you can give us are love, kindness and respect. When you’re mentally ill, feeling loved and respected can make all the difference. Mental illness can often feel like we’re at war with our own heads, and there’s no room for self-care. It can crush any sense of self-worth we have, so when the people in our lives reach out to us and remind us that we are loved, it can make the battle that much easier.
We can’t help who we are. As I stressed before, mental illness is not a choice. No-one chooses to have depression or bipolar disorder, OCD or schizophrenia. Mental illness affects people from all walks of life: it does not discriminate according to skin colour, gender, sexuality, nationality, or social class.
And let’s be real here: nobody wants to be sick. We’d get rid of our illnesses forever in a heartbeat if we could, but the reality is that we’re living with them. And we can’t be blamed for that.
But we can get better. With the right treatment (which includes but is not limited to medication, therapy, self-help, self-care, regular exercise and a strong support network of friends and family), it’s possible to not only live with a mental illness, but to live meaningfully and to achieve so many incredible things. Things that aren’t just amazing for a person with an illness, but amazing for a person full stop.
So please know that we can get better. This doesn’t mean there won’t be any more bad days, because recovery is a long and involved process and we have to allow for the fact that relapses are always a possibility. But we’d like you to be there with us, through the good times and the bad. We’d like your support. We’d like you to see us get better, to grow in our recovery, and to come to realise that, while we have suffered from terrible sickness, good can come from even the worst experiences. Sometimes we don’t deserve the shitty things that happen to us, but they happen anyway, and they teach us things we can only learn through first-hand experience. We’ve suffered, and we’re stronger people because of it.
When I was writing this post, I spoke to several of my friends who also suffer from mental illness. I want to thank them for their openness, honestly and their incredibly helpful answers. They are some of the bravest and strongest people I know.