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Over the last month, we asked people who struggle with Mental Illness one question: What do you wish people knew about your mental illness?
The question garnered a lot of responses. Which is good and bad. Good because we love to see people speaking up and out about their mental health. And bad because it’s unfortunate that it’s 2021 and people still don’t understand the daily struggles those with mental health challenges live with.
That’s right, even though we’ve been working hard to smash the stigma around Mental Illness, there’s still a lot of dangerous misconceptions out there. That’s why we’ve put together this list of their needs with commentary. To help others understand a little bit more about the lived experience of a person with mental illness.
Why is it Important To Understand The Lived Experience of Mental Illness?
It’s important to understand experiences from the Mentally Ill community (as told by that community) because we’re a traditionally silenced population. As a community, we have the unpleasant collective experience of being talked over and talked about by society way more than we are properly heard.
This can look like a doctor talking about his patient to another person instead of the patient themselves, even though they are in the same room. (A personal experience that still riles me up).
It can be a family member dismissing your pain because it’s “all in your head.”
It can even look like the media insisting that mental illness was the cause of a mass shooting despite the dissenting shouts of a thousand MH Advocates saying “I’m Mentally Ill and I Don’t Kill.”
So you can see not only is it frustrating not to be heard, it’s downright hurtful and sometimes dangerous. Misunderstandings breed harmful rumors, misconceptions, discrimination, and invalidation that affects real people every day.
Which is a shame because
Mentally Ill people have so much to say. So much amazing insight, empathy, passion, and resilience to share with the world.
So without further ado. Let’s hear from them….
15 Things People With Mental Illness Need You To Know
1. Just Because We’re Having a Good Day or Can Function at Work Doesn’t Mean We’re Fine.
Being mentally ill doesn’t mean we can’t hold a job. In fact, lots of people in high profile jobs have mental health challenges.
The difference is that we may need certain accommodations in order to be successful. And that’s a-okay!
2. Depression Isn’t Simply Being Sad
Depression is oh so much more than being sad.
Sadness is a momentary state. Depression persists. It’s something you can’t just shake out of because it can feel like a cold, heavy wet blanket clinging onto your soul. It can also make you listless, hyper, sleepy, an insomniac, withdrawn, restless, angry, or manic.
It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain which generally doesn’t pass on its own as a momentary bout of sadness would. Depression often requires treatment in the form of medication, therapy, and community support in order to improve.
3. We Hate Being Labelled as Lazy
Depression is absolutely draining (as you can see from #2 on this list).
First because Depression saps Serotonin and Dopamine, two important chemicals needed form motivation and emotional regulation. And second, Depression is draining because we’re often trying our best to hide our symptoms from the world.
So what you might see as laziness is actually someone who is trying really, really hard just to survive. Calling them lazy is detrimental, hurtful, and just increases shame based apathy.
So just, please, don’t.
4. We Suffer When You Use Words Like Bipolar and OCD Casually
Describing someone’s unpleasant personality as “bipolar” isn’t just rude, it’s actively harmful.
Why? Because it propagates the stigma that bipolar is about having quick changing moods. While those with Bipolar Depression can experience what’s known as “rapid cycling” it’s more common for them to experience prolonged mood shifts that leave them at either “pole” (Depressed or Manic) for weeks, months and even years. It is not a quick thing.
If a person only knows Bipolar through this flawed societal perspective, they are very likely to miss the actual signs and symptoms that could be heralding a major mental health event. This could result in an unchecked manic episode, psychosis, severe depression, hospitalization and even death.
5. “Smiling Depression” is a Very Real Thing
People with mental illness aren’t faking being sick, they are faking being well.
We have to mask how we’re feeling in order to function in the world. Some of us have gotten so good at hiding our symptoms, you’d never know we were ill. Thus the term “Smiling Depression” where a person appears totally fine on the outside, but is falling apart inside.
And while this smiling mask may make it easier to exist in an uncaring world, keeping it up is just as exhausting as the illness we’re hiding. So if you’re a supporter the best thing you can do to help is to be a “safe person.” Someone we can be real with and come to without fear of judgement. Because, even if it’s just for a few minutes, it’s really refreshing to be able to let down the mask.
6. Many Mental Illnesses are Co-Morbid – Meaning a Person Can Have More Than One Severe Mental Health Issue Affecting Them at a Time
Comorbidity is very common with mental health disorders. For instance, it’s not uncommon for an Anxiety Disorder to co-exist with a Depressive Disorder. And it’s pretty typical for a physical problem like diabetes or fibromyalgia to flare up along with a mental health problem and vice versa.
It’s a problem for us because not only does one disease exacerbate the symptoms of the other, the presence of two or more disorders also complicates treatment efforts. The inconsistency of which disorder will be worse on any given day is also incredibly frustrating and disheartening for patients.
7. Mental Illness isn’t Something That Just Goes Away
You can’t just “get over” a mental illness. It’s a result of chemical imbalances in the brain. We can have long periods of remission and stability, especially with treatment and supportive care, but mental illness never actually goes away.
8. Mental Illness is Just Really, Really Hard to Deal With
There’s no two ways about it. Mental Illness is hard.
Hard to deal with because the physical and mental symptoms make life unbearable sometimes.
Because having a mental health disorder makes it harder for us to have solid, supportive relationships.
Because stigma still exists, building unsupportive environments that make our illness worse.
Because it saps our creativity, productivity, and self worth.
And that’s just for starters. I haven’t even talked about what hell it is to claw your way OUT of a deep black emotional hole. A lot of times the cure is harder to face than living with the disease. So it’s difficult either way.
9. We’re Doing Our Best Even if it Doesn’t Look Like it
One of the toughest things about having a mental illness is that we have to try 10 times harder to achieve the same results you might get with minimal effort.
As number 8 showed you, we’ve got a lot stacked against us. But we persist, which takes a lot of work. So if an emotional concept or task seems difficult to someone, they may very well be trying their best. And their best might look different because they’re coming at it from a vastly different place than you.
10. Cleaning, Organization, and Routine Can Be Difficult for Those With Mental Illness
Your mood and your environment are inextricably linked. You can tell exactly how I’m doing by looking at my office and it’s level of (dis)organization. When I’m calm, everything is more or less orderly. When I’m struggling emotionally, it’s a frightful mess.
Why is that? Well, there are a few reasons. One explanation is that many people with mental illness struggle with something called Executive Dysfunction which makes it difficult to even do simple tasks like picking up after yourself. Another is that Mental Illness saps your energy, leaving you just enough to get through the day. In that case you have to pick and choose what gets done and what gets dropped. And for a lot of us, that’s the higher function of cleaning and order.
On the other hand, having disorder in your environment can be really detrimental to your mental health. Clutter, mess, and poor hygiene habits can actively exacerbate an already severe illness. So the challenge is to find a balance that’s right for you and your health (this really applies to everyone)! You can check out some of our best tips on managing your environment and mental health simultaneously in our Mental Floss Series.
11. A (Correct) Diagnosis is Actually Really Hard to Come By and It’s Okay if You Don’t Have One
For folx who have OCD the average time between onset of symptoms and diagnosis is 15-20 years. And that’s pretty normal.
That’s because it takes a lot of time and energy (and courage) just to speak to a doctor about your condition. Stigma prevents a lot of people from seeking a diagnosis and treatment. Add to that – many people don’t understand their own condition and don’t know to ask for help with their mental health.
And even after all that, it can still take a lot of trial and error to get A.)a diagnosis at all and B.) a correct diagnosis.
Having a mental health diagnosis is a super helpful tool but it’s not needed in order to get started on treatment. You can work on your mental health at any time with a therapist or on your own. (Check out our guide on Mental Health Homework you can do yourself here). Your struggle is still valid even if it doesn’t (yet) have an official name to it!
12. Well Meaning Words of Advice Can Do More Harm Than Good
We get it. You’re trying to help in the best way you’ve been taught how. And we appreciate it, truly. But sometimes, words of encouragement or advice can be really, really invalidating to a sick person’s experience. And, as this anonymous poster put it, it can even be downright scary.
It’s really important as a support person to put your desires to the back burner so you can truly listen. Learning how to help someone in the way they need to be helped is a skill that’s definitely worth knowing. You can find out more about how to give advice to someone with a Mental Illness here: “How to Give Advice in a Way That Helps Rather Than Hurts.”
13. People With Mental Illness Still Face A Lot of Social and Workplace Discrimination
It’s really not uncommon to have to hide your Mental Illness from a job or group of friends. Why? Because social understanding of Mental Health is still really poor, even in 2021. I disclosed my illness to a job after being diagnosed in order to explain a hospitalization. I had hoped my openness would help myself and the organization as a whole. Instead, I felt ostracized socially and ended up quitting.
And worse yet, I was treated like damaged goods by management, who wouldn’t let me perform my tasks without breathing down my neck for fear that I would lose my shit. It was a terrible experience that makes me think twice about ever disclosing my Mental Illness.
And I’m far from the only one. Even though there are many laws in place to protect us in the workplace, people with mental health disorders are still subject to discrimination. These days, most of it is indirect, often occurring in cases when employers or coworkers treat a person with a mental illness poorly due to their own lack of understanding. But some of it is still very, very direct – like firing a worker with a known mental illness because they have missed too much time due to their illness.
If you’re not sure if what’s happen to you or around you at work is Mental Health Discrimination, check out this helpful resource detailing the variety of situations that could be considered as such.
14. Mental Illness Can Complicate Already Difficult Situations
Not only does having a mental illness make everyday things more difficult, it also complicates the tough stuff we all inevitably go through. If you’re already depressed it can make a bad situation seem much worse, even hopeless.
People who are prone to mental illness might need special emotional and physical care after a tragic event. And extra support as well to ensure their condition isn’t exacerbated by the event. Check out our article on helping a sensitive child after a traumatic experience here for a little more information on this subject.
15. It’s Okay To Talk About Mental Illness
Talking about Mental Illness is a great thing. It builds understanding, awareness, and a better world for the mentally ill of tomorrow. It also helps us be vulnerable and seek help more often.
It’s okay to ask about things like suicide, especially if you’re concerned about someone. We actually really appreciate it when people take the time to care if we are safe or not. Oh and talking about suicide won’t make someone do it. It very often has the opposite effect!
Not every person with a mental health disorder is willing to be so open, and that’s okay too. I hope that my visibility and activism will help make a safer world for them to be able to in the near future!
Wow that was a long one! I hope you learned some interesting and new facts about Mental Illness.
If you liked this article give us a share on Facebook or your social media of choice! Is there anything you’d add to this list? Let us know in the comments below. Now get out there and use your new awareness for good!
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