Mental health stigma rests on one single erroneous assumption: That we should be able to cope with whatever life throws at us.
Because being human means being one’s own superhero, at least in a country steeped in exceptionalism like the US.
This myth posits everyone else in the world is de facto inferior to us. Good luck to whoever admits to having “issues” in such a climate.
“Issues” is a euphemism for whatever ails us, be it personal or professional. It’s a word we use to gloss over problems and sweep them under the rug lest they should identify us as weaklings. In turn, this reinforces and perpetuates the expectation of infallibility. Sometimes, “issues” are called “difficulties” or “struggle”.
We’re never short of catchall terms when it comes to shirking accountability to our own humanity.
Rather that admit to distress, we conceal it or dress it up in whichever dismissive way we can when we dare express it at all. We defer opening up, hoping to spirit away the problem with self-delusion and magical thinking.
American exceptionalism gives impetus to keep up appearances by any means necessary. As a nation, we are strong and we know better than anyone else because we’re the best. And yet, we’re also among the sickest, unraveling behind closed doors, and dying by our own hand because we’re either too proud or too broke to get help.
Failure to acknowledge what it means to be wholly human renders us incapable of helping ourselves or anyone else.
Deny distress and it’ll fester until it takes over your life.
After losing five years to major depressive disorder, I should know.
When depression struck, I first mistook it for a glitch in the happiness matrix.
I had just gotten married and immigrated to the US.
On the surface, I was about as vulnerable as a Teflon-coated cement wall. Not only had I lived in countless countries before but I had already undergone several professional reincarnations; resilience and adaptability were my bywords.
But depression doesn’t care about any of that. It creeps up on you, catches you unawares, and proceeds to colonize your brain with countless untruths. It’s a confusing and disorientating disease.
Talking about it when you can no longer trust your own voice is quite a challenge, and my being a journalist made zero difference. I couldn’t find the words so I lost my writing voice for years.
This is how ruthless depression can be.
The disease didn’t weaken me as much as it annihilated me and my livelihood in one fell swoop.
And the more I denied it, the stronger it got, nearly costing me my relationship with my family, nearly killing me, nearly destroying my marriage. Those five years were entirely composed of near-misses but things eventually improved. The best proof I can give you is that you’re reading these words, and there’s even a modest archive that contains more.
But my writing voice only came back the moment I opened up about the harrowing reality of the illness in no-holds-barred pieces.
My fear of being judged as subpar is alive and well.
I am a human animal living in a society comprising other human animals; for better or worse, judging is often how we relate to one another. But instead of letting fear of judgment paralyze me, I made a conscious effort to push through it in an attempt to find out what was on the other side.
I was terrified depression would intensify as a result of my outing it but the opposite happened.
As a result of writing openly about the nitty-gritty of illness, I was side-swept by several humbling epiphanies. Many of us suffer in silence because we don’t trust others to be receptive to our broken narratives. Speaking up has a snowball effect; it gives others permission to speak up too. Depression loathes the limelight; it thrives best in secrecy.
Then again, vulnerability hangovers are a thing you need to get used to when you do this kind of work.
While I’m not sure you can ever tame vulnerability, good things happen when you stop pushing it away and just let it be. You’re forced to get to know yourself, your limits, your triggers, and face whatever you fear most.
Am I looking forward to going back out into the workforce with all this attached to my byline? Nope, emphatically no, not at all — I dread it. Am I looking forward to explaining to people how I bootstrapped a way to save my own life? Yes, but I dread it too.
However, the potential for destigmatizing mental illness exists in every conversation.
Every time you talk about it openly is an opportunity to make your interlocutor gain a broader understanding of our shared humanity. What’s more, you might be surprised to hear they’re already familiar with your predicament, assuming you don’t self-combust with shame and turn into a mumbling idiot because you’re more articulate in print than in person. (Hi!)
Should they shut you down then you immediately know they’re not people you should be around. Theirs isn’t an environment where you’d thrive.
Mental health conversations are the great leveler. Not only do they teach you a lot about yourself but they can provide a quick snapshot of who your interlocutor is.
So why do we still shy away from having them?
Vulnerability is a constant threat to the fragile equilibrium I’ve managed to achieve.
Progress happens one day at a time and being able to keep going is never a given. For example, whenever there’s confrontation in my household my mind ends up in a chokehold and my heart empties. Especially if I’ve just poured it all out, listing my fears the best I could between two snotty hiccups.
Deferring to my self-preservation instinct, I’ve learned to keep the contents of my heart and mind to myself.
Depression — at least the kind I have — never quite goes away and likely never will as it has a genetic component. Instead, it varies and regularly hinders and impedes my trying to be functional and productive.
It’s not unusual for me to experience the urge to curl up in a ball and surrender to oblivion. In such cases, I’m seething with self-loathing and there’s no solution but to open my laptop and not come up for air until I’ve written and edited a piece.
I need to remember why I write and how vital it is to me. I need to remember I can never renege on the promise I made to my stepmom, to be there for my father when she no longer can. I need to remember that being human means being a mess sometimes and that I can’t recuse myself from life whenever it gets tough. Because it’s about to get a lot tougher as my stepmom undergoes more treatment for Stage IV cancer and I’m better equipped than ever to face it all.
How can someone so broken and broke say this, you might ask. Well, I’ve belatedly developed two very crucial survival skills: radical honesty and asking for help.
No single human lives in a vacuum, no matter how often we wish we could. I’d love not to be a bother, a financial burden, or a constant cause of concern to anyone…
Although my wonky brain keeps trying to lure me into nothingness, it has never made a good case for it. Sure, pain would stop but so would everything else, leaving a trail of destruction behind me.
No one likes asking for help any more than we enjoy dropping the mask of perfect poise and calm competence.
And yet, we’re not robots, despite what this capitalist monsterhood that is America makes us out to be. If anything, mental illness is a warning against treating ourselves and one another so poorly.
Mental illness is a societal issue and a direct result of putting greed first before ensuring that people are healthy and educated so they can be and give their best.
Here’s some context: Because I come from the European Union I had the benefit of a free university education. Bar for nominal tuition fees, I was therefore able to study in France, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Whenever I was unwell, I went to the doctor’s, even when I was cash-strapped. It would have never occurred to me not to. I never had to worry about bills thanks to universal health care funded by taxes, mine and everyone else’s.
If we never admit to being vulnerable and continue to dismiss distress whenever we experience it then we can’t expect anything to change.
If we continue to pretend we’re fine when we’re not, mental health stigma will endure.
If we carry on suffering in silence, more people will die by their own hand when their pain becomes unbearable.
More often than not, looking inside yourself is terrifying as most of us have no idea what’s in there, and sharing what you find with others is almost always a crapshoot. At the same time it’s the only way to gain perspective and garner support.
So when someone asks you how you’re doing, maybe think about the kind of world you want to live in before you answer.
And when you feel ready to give up, please try and push through the discomfort if at all possible, for no other reason than to prove to yourself that you’re far more capable than you think.
Against all odds, owning your vulnerability is how you transcend existential dread and make friends and allies.
Remember, the human condition isn’t a pathology.
What if mental illness were a sane reaction to a world careening out of control?