Friends are often surprised when I mention my mental health problems. To me it feels as though I’m walking around with a brand on my forehead, marking me as separate from all the ‘normal’ people. But others never seem to see me this way; typical responses include “But you’re so cheery!”, “I would never have guessed” and my personal favourite “But you don’t seem the type!”.
Then once it’s out in the open a lot of people never mention it again. Which is good in a way, because it hasn’t affected our relationship. But it also means that I don’t know what that person is thinking – whether they are comfortable around me still or whether they’re just going through the motions, waiting for me to ‘go mental’.
In contrast to this are the reactions I get to my physical disability. I have degenerative disc disorder and frequently need to use a walking stick. I get a lot of sympathy and friendly interest from strangers as well as friends. No-one has ever told me that I “don’t seem the type” to have a physical condition, although as a woman in my thirties using a walking stick I do sometimes get odd looks. 🙂
So what’s the difference? Stigma, misconceptions and ignorance. One in four people will suffer a mental health problem at some point yet it is still taboo; people talk about mental illness in hushed tones and using euphemisms. Depression is often seen as a sign of weakness and thanks to misconceptions and inaccurate media portrayals many people are scared by illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
A physical injury or illness is usually more obvious than a mental illness and more easily understood. Because of the taboos surrounding mental illness quite often people don’t understand what it can be like. You can understand what it would be like to have a broken leg, right? Can you understand how it would be to have depression so badly that it’s impossible to get out of bed or speak to people?
Mental illness is often viewed as a sign of weakness, that if the sufferer merely pulled themselves together they would be fine. But no-one thinks this way about physical illnesses because it would be ridiculous. No-one tells a diabetic to stop taking insulin and yet people taking anti-depressants are often encouraged by friends and family to stop.
Is there a point to this rambling ranty post? Yes, a very simple one. If someone tells you that they or someone they know is suffering from a mental illness, please pause before you react. Think, would you react this way to news of a physical illness? Having a mental illness can be incredibly isolating and a lot of sufferers feel ashamed – together we can change that.