I still remember the Friday afternoon when it happened. It had been a long week, and I was ready to go home and sleep for twelve hours. I had recently been officially diagnosed with depression, and even though I had really known that for years, it made a difference to me. It meant that what I was feeling was real, something that I couldn’t just wish away.
My friend and I were chatting when I heard him mention the words “mental illness.” I started paying more attention. My friend wasn’t a bad person by any means, but he was very opinionated – and many of those opinions could be quite controversial and offensive. I’d gotten used to telling him when I thought he was taking his opinions too far, but it had never been personal. It had never hurt me. So while he ranted about mental illness, I just listened and stammered defenses for those who struggled. But when he said that depressed people were of no use to society, I had nothing to say.
Almost four years later, I have a lot to say in response to his statement. At the time though, I stayed quiet (and later cried in my bed). I am useless. Why am I even here? I can’t do anything useful for myself or anyone else. Thoughts like those had cycled in my mind for years prior to this moment, but suddenly they were like a tornado that wouldn’t stop spinning.
When I first asked my friends to tell me how the stigma against mental illness has affected them, I didn’t expect to get so many and such detailed responses:
“The worst is, ‘You feel this way because you want to.’”
“I’m always really bothered by the way some people treat anxiety. They think it’s something that we can control and snap out of. It’s like they don’t take it as serious as other mental disorders. I always hear, ‘Yeah everyone struggles with anxiety though, you’ll be fine.’”
“A common one is calling people who are just very neat or organized OCD. It’s an actual disorder, not a characteristic.”
“It presumed that people had to be undergoing obvious forms of mistreatment to be somehow deserving of self-harming, and people who weren’t undergoing those things didn’t deserve to self-harm. Which is just dumb.”
“I was uncomfortable with getting help because people who go to therapy are often seen as ‘crazy’ or unstable. I had worked extremely hard on my reputation in high school, and the last thing I wanted was for people to know I was in therapy.”
“Mental illness is often invisible; mine is. When I am at the train station, searching online for housing, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, society’s stigma against mental illness slaps me in the face.”
“I find it hard for people to understand that mental illness is a constant battle. Even if I’ve said I’m done with depression and I’m happy and healthy, things can always turn for the worse again. And then I’m left feeling like a failure because I didn’t do enough before, or I’m always going to be some horribly messed up kid.”
In hindsight, I don’t know why I was surprised. I’ve flushed with embarrassment when I’ve heard students in my high school class laughing at “emo” people self-harming. I’ve shaken in anger after hearing a young boy make a joke about people killing themselves. I’ve also heard countless stories of pain stemming from words people have heard about mental illnesses.
The thing is, as the years have gone by, I’ve grown better at letting the words bounce off me. I remind myself that these people are incorrect. I remind myself that they’re not people who know me that well, that I have proven that I am more than any stereotype or misconception. But somewhere inside of me is still that 15-year-old girl who went home and cried because a friend claimed people with depression were useless. And somewhere out there are plenty more people trying to come to terms with what their mental illness means for them. Those times of self-discovery are when we’re the most vulnerable, and that’s when these words have the most power to hurt and silence us.
I don’t think people mean to hurt us when they make statements like these – not in most cases at least. When I can rationally think about it, I realize that most of it comes from a place of ignorance. Maybe I just like to assume the best about people, so some might disagree with me, but I truly believe that. That young boy didn’t understand what death by suicide really means, or how it can very personally impact those around him. Those kids in my biology class didn’t really know what “emo” means or why people self-harm – or even know that there are people around them that may do so.
And I’d like to believe that my friend didn’t understand what depression really was, or what people who suffer from depression are like. As a matter of fact, I know he didn’t. I still talk to him from time to time, and he doesn’t hold that opinion anymore. He’s learned. He’s experienced. He’s seen. But not everyone has. And it’s important that they do.
It won’t be an overnight change. We won’t be perfect in our understanding of mental illness – I know I’m still not. But we need to try. We need to share our stories until it’s clear that mental illness is not something that makes us useless or “crazy.” I don’t care what mental illness you have – depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, OCD, or whatever else – it is real. It is real, and I’m here to say that it is essential for others to learn more and try to understand more about who we are and what our daily lives look like. So, please, learn. Learn, and use your words carefully. It’s the only way to break the stigma.