The Stigma of Mental Health Issues

Recently I saw a post on Facebook that said “When cancer takes a life we blame cancer. Depression is a disease. Don’t blame the victim for losing the fight.”

I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit. Partly because mental illness has touched our family, and partly because I’ve just submitted a story to the Defying Doomsday Anthology. Obviously I have no idea if my story’s good enough, or if it’s what they’re looking for, but I’m glad I’ve written it, because it made me attempt to hop inside the head of someone suffering from social anxiety and claustrophobia.

I found myself breathless, as I wrote about panic attacks, and almost nauseous as I wrote about the terror of being inside a confined space. I don’t suffer from mental illness myself, but I did run the content of what I wrote past someone who does.

Sufferers of mental illness often don’t talk about their issues. They don’t discuss them because of the looks, the stares and the sudden backing away of friends and family who don’t ‘get it.’ At the same time they feel alone, and isolated, because often when they do have a problem, or struggle with depression, they face rejection, rather than compassion.

It seems that we can deal with physical injury much more easily than illness that affects the mind.

We deal with what we can see, better than what we don’t understand, or perhaps don’t want to understand.

In my non-writing work I’m a physio. I see people in splints, casts and on crutches every day, but I also see those with lower back pain, neck pain, headaches, dizziness and chronic pain issues such as CRPS. Those people also suffer from the stigma of something with no visible signs. Once people have had a non-visible injury themselves, they’re much more likely to be sympathetic to fellow sufferers.

So, should we all experience mental illness in order to become sympathetic? Of course not. However, we should all realise that the sufferer of depression, bipolar, anxiety, OCD, PTSD etc has no choice about the matter. It’s not something that they planned  on having ‘just for funsies.’

Like anyone who has an injury or illness that impacts their day to day activities, sufferers of mental illness are still people. No-one tells cancer patients just to ‘suck up and cope with’ the side effects of their chemo, or those with MS to just ‘get on with it’- they offer them sympathy, support, and the occasional meal. They also treat them as normal human beings.

Watching someone you live struggle with mental illness is awful. When you begin to understand how difficult it is, how frustrating it is, all you want to do is make it go away – and you can’t. You have to sit and watch them struggle through medication changes, watch them drag themselves determinedly out of bed each day, and not be able to alleviate it by any kind of thought, word or deed.

You can cook the odd meal, and you can hug if it’s the right moment for hugging, but you can’t wave a magic wand and fix it, no matter how much you want to.

What you can do, is remember that they’re a human being – a human being with a chronic illness, just like anyone else. You can treat them normally, retain your relationship, and be there. You can even try and understand and accept that mental illness happens – to about thirty percent of us.

Imagine how it might be if people didn’t feel they had to hide it, or pretend that it didn’t exist. If you think that’s nuts, then imagine how a cancer sufferer might feel if they felt they had to pretend that they didn’t have cancer, and pretend that the  debilitating side effects of surgery, chemo or radiotherapy didn’t exist. Put yourself in their shoes and think about it.

If you’re fortunate enough to not have experienced mental illness, don’t ignore those who have. Remember that they’re people too. Remember that they often feel alienated from everyone else for fear of what they might think. Remember that it could be you.

And if it is you, and you’re ignoring it – please don’t. Seek help at Beyond Blue or The Black Dog Institute.

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