I chose this topic for my second blog post because it is something I personally struggle with, but I have not really heard it be brought up in class. We mainly talk about things you can physically observe such as race, sex, physical illness/disability, or personal beliefs such as religion. One thing I have not heard be brought up or discussed is mental illness, something you cannot necessarily see, but is very real. To start, please watch this powerful TED talk by Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman.
I started going to therapy when I was a senior in high school. Looking back, I probably should have tried to get help sooner, but at the time my symptoms had gotten out of control. My now husband, then boyfriend, and I had just started doing long distance when he went to college. Having anxiety/OCD/depression, this was too much for me and I could barely execute daily tasks. I had developed separation anxiety from my mom after he left, and I would literally cry every time I was alone without her outside of school. It was scary and I felt out of control. When I started going to therapy, my friends made a lot of comments about how I was always happy and didn’t need to go to therapy. My friend’s parents would say “you are just a kid, you don’t have anything to be anxious about, I have to worry about x, y, and z.” This made me feel very ashamed and I was afraid to share this part of my life with others. Fast forward to when I first got diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I started taking medication, only it didn’t help, it got worse. I had no feelings anymore, I started gaining weight, and I was becoming more depressed. Once I started the medication, I was required to take it for at least 6 months by the doctor. After about a year I decided it was making me feel worse. The doctor wrote on a prescription how to ween off as follows: 2 days take 1 pill, 2 days take ½ pill, stop 😊. There was nothing happy about stopping, because now my symptoms were back, along with painful withdrawal side-effects. Once the withdrawal symptoms ended, I thought, “you know what, I don’t have anything to worry about so I’m going to stop therapy and not try another medication”…Now I am in college. I have my first exam, and I studied so much. I was a little nervous, but I studied and I knew the material. When I opened my test my mind when blank, I started panicking, I felt like I was going to throw up and I could not calm down. I finished as much of the test as I could and then I ran to the bathroom. This happened to me during every test in that class. I would cry every time I knew I had a test coming up to the point of barely making it to the test. I finally got the nerve to tell my advisor about the struggles I was having and he said, “everyone has anxiety and depression these days.” This made me feel so silly and belittled that I didn’t bring it up with him again for almost 4 years. Recently, I started taking my mental health more seriously because my symptoms have gotten more serious. It not only makes me feel crazy, but it makes me act crazy. When I get in an anxious spell, I will stay up until 3 or 4 am cleaning, working, or doing whatever I need to do to keep my mind occupied. On the contrary, when I experience a depression spell, I will lay in bed for 2-3 days without eating, drinking, or talking to anyone. When my OCD is really bad, I will drive from Christiansburg to my lab on campus at midnight just to make sure I turned a microscope off. I will cancel plans almost every time I have them, and make up any excuse I can think of. Yet, people who don’t know this about me just think I am a happy, hardworking student who gets a little stressed sometimes. The stigma against mental illness is so harmful because people who suffer are afraid to talk about it in fear of being ridiculed, dismissed, or feared. The doctor in the TED talk spoke so graciously about this topic and I loved his professional advice to society about how harmful stigma can be. I think people need to understand that people can be anxious, but that doesn’t mean they have anxiety, people can be sad/depressed, but that doesn’t mean they have clinical depression, and people can be a perfectionist, but that doesn’t mean they have OCD. What you see on the outside may be a good representation, but in my experience what I portray vs. what I think/feel/struggle with is polar opposite.
There are many resources for addressing the stigma against mental illness, including this page from the mayo clinic (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health/art-20046477). This page discusses the stigma, as well as solutions and what people with mental illness should do to get help and cope with stigma. We talk about discrimination in class a lot, but we have not covered stigma specifically. I think the theories we have learned so far in class such as the bias period and more recently microaggression apply to the stigma against mental illness. I really hope people do not purposefully say/do things to hurt or lessen someone with a mental illness, but it is definitely a huge part of society that may fall on the bottom of the bias pyramid. Additionally, microaggressions often occur when people with mental illness express it as a problem, such as saying things like everyone gets stressed. I think this is because people do not understand, which leads into my next section.
Education and, sadly, experience are two components that are missing. I say education because people are afraid of mental illness and often pretend it doesn’t exist besides the more extreme disorders such as schizophrenia. Mental illness seems to be correlated with being crazy and dangerous. I say experience because it is very hard to understand the extremity of mental illness without either having a mental illness or being very close with someone who does (and will trust you to let them see what it is like). Even my husband who lives with me and see’s me having these struggles still has a hard time understanding. And part of that is because although I let him experience a lot of it with me, I am still shameful of it and try to hide as much as possible when I have enough willpower. I honestly don’t even fully open up to my therapist. She is there to listen to me, but I still feel uncomfortable and ashamed. I think the only solution to end the stigma is to create an environment in which struggling individuals feel comfortable sharing and professionals in the field can speak and be heard and taken seriously.
The implication that the stigma has on society is huge. People feel so alone, scared, and out of control that they isolate themselves and sometimes even commit suicide. Feeling uncomfortable, even in your closest relations causes strain at times with the other person. Usually, when someone commits suicide or does something else extreme, people close to them say they are shocked, or they didn’t realize it was so bad but they knew the person was struggling. This is sad and it happens all the time. The only way to fix this is to be okay with hearing struggles and accepting them and wanting to help instead of ridicule. I think that a lot of school shootings and other tragic events like that could be prevented if mental illness was more normalized and recognized so outsiders could pick up on key behaviors that might indicate a mental illness is happening. The implication a solution would have is that people suffering could feel comfortable seeking help and talking about what is happening and I think that would be the best thing for everyone. Another implication may be that people suffering from mental illness can be properly diagnosed and treated for other physical illnesses. I often experience a lot of my symptoms be written off by doctors as a symptom of my mental illness. But I know my body and I know when something feels wrong, not the doctor. I think if doctors took symptoms seriously instead of accounting everything to mental illness, the mental illness itself may be more treatable with a healthy body.