Can We Please Stop Pretending Mental Illness Doesn’t Exist?
My name is Elizabeth, and I’m mentally ill.
Ouch. What a difficult sentence to write. I’m not even sure if it’s true.
Here’s what I know for sure: I have anxiety attacks sometimes. I carry Klonopin in my bag for when I get panicky and can’t breathe very well. Sometimes I get very depressed, and it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning.
When I was in college, my therapist referred me to a psychiatrist who prescribed Prozac, and then when I didn’t like that, he prescribed Zoloft. When that didn’t work out so great either, he put me on Wellbutrin. That one filled me with rage, so eventually, I stopped taking anything.
And I was fine. You know, more or less. I was never officially diagnosed with anything.
Then a couple of years ago, the panic set in. I thought I was dying, or I had a degenerative disease. My GP said it was probably anxiety and sent me off with a prescription for Klonopin. That’s as official a diagnosis as I’ve ever gotten.
So, am I mentally ill? Or maybe the better question is, so what if I am?
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 350 million people across the globe suffer from depression. It’s the leading cause of disability in the world, and according to the WHO, “is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.” It affects more women than men, and severe cases can result in death.
So why do so many of us, self included, feel cagey about admitting we suffer from it?
We say we have “a doctor’s appointment” when we have to leave work early for our regular therapy session. We say we’re “coming down with a cold” when we cancel plans because of an anxiety attack, and make a plethora of excuses to hide the truth, fearing being labelled as “mentally ill” will impact our careers and relationships, despite the fact we’d gladly if not somewhat boastingly brandish a broken arm at work without a second thought.
When I first started online dating, I hesitated over the question in the online form asking me whether I’d date someone with a history of mental illness. What could I say, given my own history? And it’s not just me – mental illness runs rampant in my family, as well. So I ticked ‘yes’, I would, even though I wasn’t quite sure. If I’m crazy, does that mean I need to date someone sane?
The thing is, I’m not crazy. I might be mentally ill, but just as if I were nursing a broken limb, a health affliction shouldn’t exclude me from the dating pool, or from holding down a job, or make anyone see me differently.
Depression has been called “the common cold” of mental illness. In other words, most of us have probably weathered a bout with it at one time or another. Anxiety is big, too – almost 15 million Americans have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. It’s incredibly common.
Here are some symptoms of depression:
- Feeling sad, anxious, or “empty” on a regular basis
- Feeling hopeless and pessimistic
- Feeling guilty, worthlessness, or helpless
- Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Restlessness and irritability
And here are some symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder:
- Feeling restless, wound-up, or edgy
- Being easily fatigued
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Uncontrollable worry
- Having difficulty falling or staying asleep
Any of those sound familiar? Congratulations – you might be mentally ill. Let’s just deal with it, shall we?
There’s really no point pretending we’re all fine, and making up stories about going off to doctor’s appointments instead of admitting we’re taking ownership of our mental health by seeing a therapist once a week in the same way we’d own visiting a personal trainer or a dietician to improve our heart health or cholesterol levels.
When so many of us are struggling, shouldn’t we all band together and stop acting like being “mentally ill” carries some sort of stigma?
I’ll go first.
My name is Elizabeth, and I’m mentally ill…
Comment: Do you suffer from anxiety or depression? If so, are you honest about it with friends and coworkers, or do you fear it’d affect the way people see you?