“We should focus on reducing the fear and prejudice and replace them with acceptance, tolerance and inclusion.” -Bernice Pescosolido
Mental illness. An often covert battle. Masked in layers of “I’m okay” and “I’m just tired”. A battle that is constant, fuelled by the fear of judgement and belittlement. Destroying every positive thought we have and infecting it’s way into aspects of our life that we never thought possible, yet we’re told to just “toughen up” and “pull ourselves together”.
Why is it when someone breaks a leg and can’t get out of bed, they get cared for without a second thought, but when someone is suffering from depression and can’t get out of bed, they get ignored and told to “get a grip” and to just “stop being lazy”? Mental and physical illness both deserve equal attention and compassion.
These pre-judgements may come, not out of cruelty and spite, but out of misinformation and unfortunate social norms. It may be due to the absence of an obvious physical symptom/appearance such as cast or a burn and so the automatic assumption kicks in that if you can’t see it, it mustn’t exist. This perception that an illness must be visible for it to be valid needs to change.
This does not mean placing an expectation on the entire population to know everything about mental illness so that they can understand in detail what a family member or a friend is going through. That would be unfair and mental illness can manifest so differently in every single person, that it would be impossible to know and understand it all. What is important is just acknowledging and validating the struggle that someone is going through, without judgment.
Validate the person’s experiences, leave behind the pre-judgement and acknowledge what they are going through. Just because it may not be visible, doesn’t mean it’s not valid. Accept that this is the situation they are in right at this moment. The feelings they are experiencing right now are real and that’s okay. Support. You may not be able to stop the whirlwind of thoughts raging through this person’s brain, but you can offer compassion, such as a shoulder to lean on. Again, try to actively choose to leave any preconceived negative perceptions of mental illness behind and listen to what they have to say. Encourage them to get support if appropriate. Offer to go to the GP with them, or start a conversation that may lead to them finally opening up to someone who can support them further. Talking is so vital.
Crucially, I feel that whilst educating adults to be more open and less judgmental of mental illness is very important and shouldn’t be ignored, the work really needs to start in childhood and thus in school, so that (to name a few) it becomes the norm for future doctors to have a solid understanding of mental health problems and future teachers to be accepting that some students may be struggling and that extra educational/work related support is not shunned or stigmatised. We need to normalise conversations about mental health in school lessons. We need to reduce the number of young people needing to google their symptoms because they feel like they’re going insane due to never being taught about depression or anxiety. We need to address the fact that mental and physical illness should be treated with equal compassion. Tell them that mental health affects everyone and those with mental illness are not inferior, they are not pathetic, they are not weak. They are human and worthy of help and support.
Have that conversation, talk to your students, chat with your coworkers. Help diminish the stigma and false perceptions of mental illness.
Make the ‘invisible’, visible. Be the change, start the chain reaction. Destroy the perception that an illness must be visible for it to be valid. Start now.