The Absolute, Most Toxic Thing About the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness
I'm guilty of this. I'm guilty of judging another person's mental illness based on my personal experiences. I'm guilty of feeling slightly annoyed when someone reaches out, and I can't help. I'm guilty of brushing off the (controversial, and insensitive) things I hear everyday because it's easier to be quiet than to be right.
Me. An advocate for mental health. Someone who works in the industry. I have caught myself viewing mental illness in a defensive way, as if only I have really experienced an eating disorder, or the depths of depression. As if, despite knowing the statistics, I'm the only one who truly gets what it's like.
I'm writing this because I'm conscious of it, and I'm conscious that I'm not the only one who thinks, acts or feels this way - even if by accident, or on occasion. It's never a way I mean to behave. I don't think anybody purposefully intends to lose empathy; but for some reason, the world of mental health has developed an underlying tone of competition.
Because in our everyday conversations, in movies and the media, we've convinced ourselves to think that mental illness is only valid when displayed in a certain way. The curvy girl can't have an eating disorder. The straight-A student can't be suicidal. The outgoing guy can't have anxiety.
We're taught that mental illness looks like this:
We're shown romanticized images of life-consuming disorders, and inadvertently told that if we don't match those stereotypes, our mental illness is somehow less justifiable. If you're depressed, but you "don't have a reason to be", it's suddenly trivial compared to someone who "does".
When I was at my lowest with an eating disorder, I went to a support group and met other girls with similar issues; girls who were skinnier than me, girls who had been battling their eating disorder for years, girls who had been hospitalized and went to treatment centers. And there was me: convinced that I was fine, because I didn't have an official diagnosis, and I wasn't "sick enough" to be taken out of school.
And now, I see it all the time. In the conversations I have, in the TV shows I watch, and in the deep dark corners of my tumblr feed. It's not only damaging: it's the absolute, most toxic thing about the stigma surrounding mental illness today.
The problem with these competitive standards - these engrained stereotypes - is that the more we discredit a person's struggle, the more likely they are to believe us. Even if they've just experienced the worst panic attack of their life, or threw up after that last meal, if you waltz in and say, "But you seem fine." in that moment, that entire person's earth will silently shatter and they will begin to question their own mental illness.
When we brush aside cries for help, we're essentially telling people "you're not that sick, get over it". And if you're like me, you'll internalize that notion and convince yourself - despite the daily battles you're fighting - that you're okay. At my worst, I denied my own mental illness. Because this is what people don't tell you about eating disorders:
Now multiply that by the pressures of the fashion industry, the romanticization of mental illness in the media, and everyday conversations where eating disorders are taboo.
It is so easy to be silent when you struggle with mental illness. It is so easy to just coast by, pretending to yourself and to the world that things are fine. It's so easy to not get help, because that's the norm. So if you're reading this, here's your challenge:
When you catch yourself judging someone else's mental health experiences based on your own, stop.
When you catch yourself feeling slightly annoyed because someone overshared with you, stop.
When you catch yourself brushing off the things that people say because it's easier to be quiet than to do the right thing, stop.
When you catch yourself comparing and validating the severity of your own mental illness, stop.
When you catch yourself feeling like the only person in the world, stop.
Because nobody's perfect. We've grown up using words like "crazy" and "bipolar" out of context. We're engrained to judge books by their covers, and to make assumptions because of that. We all have days where we don't feel empathetic because we're too busy worrying about our own shit.
But that's just it. We all get it. Because no matter your story, everybody has one. Don't forget that when someone shares it with you.