“At least it’s not cancer.”
“So many people have it worse than you.”
“Just pull yourself together; we all have to deal with stuff like this.”
“Have you ever just, you know, tried thinking positively?”
“Mind over matter.”
“What have you got to be depressed about?”
These are just a handful of things that have been said to me and, I imagine, many other people throughout their struggle with mental illness. But why? Why do people regard mental health as a completely separate entity to physical health? Why do people think that it’s just a case of thinking happy thoughts? You wouldn’t say to someone with cancer… “oh, it’s nothing, just think happy thoughts!” Just like you shouldn’t say to someone in the midst of depression, “hey, all you need to do is think happy things!” OMG WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT BEFORE?!?!?!? THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR CURING ME -.-
Mental health is EXACTLY the same as physical health in the sense we ALL have it. Just like physical health, some people have better mental health than others. There are those that are physically healthy and then those that are briefly ill or who have long term physical problems; there are those that are mentally healthy, those that are briefly mentally ill or who have long term mental health problems. It’s the same concept. It should be treated in society in the SAME WAY.
I like to think that throughout our lives we live on a sliding scale for both our mental and physical health. Sometimes we’ll be feeling amazing and we’ll have great health and other times we may not feel so great and be lower down the scale. We are never at one fixed point and that’s OK. Just like it’s OK to have a cold, or break your leg or need some antibiotics for an ear infection. Just like it’s OK to go through depression, or have a psychotic episode or have an intense period of anxiety. It’s OK to slide up and down that scale. (I tried to visually explain this but I fail at art. Soz.)
But, sadly, this is where the similarities end.
Physical health is treated far differently from mental health. If you fall over and break your leg and need some time off work, your boss is likely to pat you on the shoulder and hope you feel better soon. Yet if you were to suffer from a bout of depression and need some time off of work, the same boss may tap you on the shoulder and suggest you’re not committed to the job and are letting the team down.
If you can’t attend someone’s birthday party because you’ve got a nasty chest infection, you’ll be wished well and told you’ll be missed. Yet if you miss the same birthday party because you’re just feeling too anxious, you’ll be told you’re a flake and you let people down.
If you’re having a really tough day and you just really can’t face doing more than staying in bed people may tell you to “get a grip” and to stop being so dramatic because “at least it’s not cancer”.
No, it’s not cancer and I’m glad that it’s not but that doesn’t make my suffering or what I’m going through any less valid or difficult than someone with cancer.
There are many, many times I’ve wished that I could be physically ill instead. Because if I was then people would treat me SO much differently to how they do now. I wouldn’t be criticised at work for not being “smiley enough” during a busy period. I wouldn’t be told to just put “mind over matter” or to “grow some balls”. And I probably wouldn’t be told that I’m letting people down because “I’m not living my life to the full” or doing what a “normal twenty-two year old does”. If I were lying in a bed with cancer that would be the last thought on anyone’s mind. Yet when I lie in bed with depression and have suicidal thoughts, people just think I’m being over-dramatic and selfish?
Some people argue that mental health is easier to go through because you have the power to change it and make yourself better unlike those who may be physically ill and don’t have that ability. And, yes, in some cases that is true. But in the vast majority of cases of physical illness you could say the same too. Got a cold? Take some tablets and wrap up warm. Diabetes? Implement a diet plan and take medication. Broken leg? Put it in a cast and wait until it heals.
So why can’t people with mental illness wait until it heals?
Why are we forced into taking immediate action and made to feel guilty if it looks like we’re not improving? You wouldn’t say to someone recovering from a heart attack, “wow, you had that heart attack like three weeks ago, you still look so rough. You should be better by now.”
WHY WHY WHY DO WE MAKE PEOPLE WHO GO THROUGH MENTAL ILLNESS FEEL REALLY FUCKING GUILTY FOR NOT BEING ILLER?
I am sick of trying to explain what anxiety and depression is like. It’s more than just feeling sad or being a bit scared. It’s completely engulfing and crushing and at times you feel like you’re drowning with no way out. It’s like being in a never ending, dark room and not knowing where the door is to find your way out. You just have to slowly and methodically inch along, searching every single patch of wall until you find that handle to open the door. It’s not about being happy or putting mind over matter. It’s not about comparing my plight with someone else’s.
Just because mental illness can’t be physically seen, it doesn’t mean it’s not excruciatingly painful and real. Yes, you can see a broken leg; yes, you can tell if someone has a bad cough, yes, someone undergoing chemotherapy may lose their hair but just because there are visual symptoms they seem to be cared about more.
Thankfully more and more people are becoming understanding about mental health and are less prejudice about it but there is still a LONG way to go. Sadly one of the reasons for this is that mental illnesses are used as adjectives;
People used the word depressed or depressing to explain something a bit sad which then belittles the experience that people with real depression go through. The same with OCD; it’s not about liking things looking neat and being tidy but how often do you hear people say “I’m so OCD about that.” NO YOU’RE FUCKING NOT. Just like when something scary happens and you have a normal bodily reaction to it you did not just have “OMG A PANIC ATTACK.”
Sigh. Can you tell it makes me a bit annoyed?!
I just wish I could live in a world where it wasn’t a constant competition to see who was worse off or who was suffering more. In comparison to some third world countries we all obviously have a better life. But it doesn’t mean that at the very moment when we’re suffering most that it’s not as bad as or less valid than any other suffering anyone has ever been through.
Treat everyone with care and compassion. One day you may be the one who needs the care and compassion most.