This is not a topic that is easy to open up about, nor is it something that everyone understands, and that I can accept. What I can’t accept is the unfair and close-minded dismissal or portrayal of mental health.
Mental health problems are so common, so why is there such a negative opinion of it in society? One in four people experience mental health problems at some point in their lives. One in four. Look around the room you’re in. Though most won’t show or say it, plenty of those people will have been or are currently suffering from mental health problems. Mental health problems don’t discriminate people like society discriminates those diagnosed with them. Young and old, rich and poor, male and female – it does not matter your background or your upbringing.
Despite it being such a common issue, it is something that sees difficultly in being accepted by society. It’s an elephant in the room scenario – something people would rather not discuss. Those who admit to having mental health issues are suddenly seen as being less capable of completing certain tasks or jobs, unable to be in a steady relationship or make new friends. Suddenly certain actions they take, in order to overcome symptoms of their illness, are heavily judged. It’s like wearing a sign on your head that says ‘vulnerable’ or ‘dangerous’. When you try to talk about it or open up about it, you’re labelled as an attention seeker. What do you do when all these labels are put on you, other than feel wrong?
This summer, I was diagnosed with severe depression. For well over a year, I assumed I was suffering from some form of anxiety disorder but little did I know that it was more serious than that. The diagnosis was not easy to accept, especially since I was aware of the strong negative social stigma around mental health that exists in our society. Fear took over and I started having breakdowns about the situation. It became even more difficult to tell those around me as I was afraid of their response; afraid of discrimination and afraid of being misunderstood and pushed away by those who are important to me.
This negative stigma that both media and society express only worsens the struggle those who have mental health problems have to go through. It makes you more anxious, more paranoid, more susceptible to taking your own life at times when you feel trapped. It’s worse when it comes from those around you – friends, family, colleagues. These people you’ve know personally, who know you personally and have a certain impression of you, immediately start seeing you in a different way. I’m not saying that some don’t try to help you through the battle, but most turn you away, or push you away. They make decisions for you thinking they are ‘keeping you safe’. They judge you and say hurtful things without thinking twice about how it may affect you. ‘You’re complicated’, ‘You’re unstable’, ‘You’re a mess’.
Telling my parents was the hardest because they genuinely couldn’t understand it. ‘But why?’ asked my mother, ‘We never raised you in a way that could induce a mental health problem. I just don’t understand how this happened.’ I don’t either mum, and that’s what makes this battle so much more exhausting. The triggers can be anything, and can occur at any time. Though my family tried their best to be supportive, the support became patronising and started to make me feel like I was a burden. They would try not to talk about it at times, as if it was tabooed, and forbade me from telling any other member of our family or community about the diagnosis and the medication. It became something to be ashamed of.
Having any sort of relationship with someone who has depression, or a mental health problem in general, isn’t an easy feat. There is so much you would need to understand but struggle to because it goes against your instinct and knowledge of how the world works. When we cancel because of an anxiety attack, or because of fear; when we want to lie in bed all day and not move; when we wake you up because we can’t fall asleep; when we are happy one minute, but at our lowest the next – the list goes on and on and on. We apologise, though sometimes we don’t know what for, purely because we’re made to feel like it is our fault, and it is something we have power over. It drains you mentally and emotionally, and even if others don’t put you down, their struggle or frustration is enough for you to put yourself down.
I am still fighting it, I am still taking medications and grabbing onto any moments of happiness I can find to escape falling into, what seems like, a bottomless pit whenever my mood drops. Everyday I struggle to get out of bed, desperately searching for a reason – a motivation – to get up and live that day. Knowing I have lost or been distanced by dear friends because of my actions or reactions makes getting up even harder; I don’t want to lose anyone else. I struggle to eat on a regular basis, miss meals without realising. When I’m not trying to overcome insomnia, I’m waking up from terrifying nightmares. When I break down, I have to resist the urge to do something reckless, distract myself from all the negativity that floods in. But distractions aren’t solutions, they never were. Sooner or later, the trigger returns because it was never put to bed in the first place. Sometimes there is no escape from it, and I have to use every last drop of energy in me to fight through.
For months, I kept it hidden and faked a smile. The things I said, the clothes I wore, my interests – I made sure to limit to only those that made me seem like I was still the happy, ‘normal’ and mentally well person I once was. I thought if I stay fit, well dressed and presented and organised, no one would realise this ‘flaw’ about me. I felt embarrassed and scared, thought it would make me seem less competent. Now I am tired of the facade and I know not to be afraid to admit it, because I’m not my depression, I am still me. I am not vulnerable, nor am I dangerous. I am strong, for it is this strength that has kept me fighting, and kept me alive. My competence should not be questioned or doubted. I found motivation in dance to get me out of bed and live my day, letting my passion neutralise any negativity. But how many people see right through all of this and think of me as weak? How many people think I am hanging by a fine thread, when my hands are sore with rope burn from holding onto a sturdy rope?
I think what those who don’t understand fail to see is that it isn’t a switch that can be flicked into the ‘OFF’ position. It isn’t something that is in our control, or something that is just in our minds. These problems take their toll on the body in ways you wouldn’t think, making the fight even more difficult. But we are still fighting. Every day that we get through is a battle.
So, please, those of you who fail to see that this is an illness and not a ‘state of mind’, open your eyes and your minds. Don’t judge us by actions we sometimes need to take to keep fighting through our day. Don’t add fuel to the flame that is already trying to burn its way through our armour; the flame can burn through, and some find the only escape is to take their lives. That could be your friend, your child, your sibling, your teacher, your boss, your idol – literally anyone around you – who decides that the battle is no longer worth fighting, as it is more painful to live every single day than it is to face death. If you offer to help someone through their battle, don’t leave them stranded with no notice, because they will blame themselves and their mental health over and over again until they stop seeing their worth.
It isn’t a battle that is won overnight, or in the space of a month or a few months. Some never overcome it, depending on what type of issue they are battling, and others do with time. Some fight it away only for it to return later. It is a battle that requires patience, support, understanding and lots of love and laughter. I will continue fighting my depression, because I know I can’t give into it and let it define me. That’s the choice so many people have made though they might not be express it so openly like I am doing right now. Just because they haven’t spoken about it and confessed to the world, doesn’t mean they aren’t fighting back.
Don’t ignore it. Turning your heads away will not help the situation but respecting and being aware of it will help those who are suffering get through their lives just like how everyone else is. We are all human beings, and we all deserve to live our lives out the best way we can.
We fear the things we don’t understand, but I hope by sharing my voice, I can change even one person’s perception of mental health. Yes, my depression is real, and I still have days when I wake up not wanting to live, but it isn’t my life and isn’t what drives my decisions. Those are fueled by the passion, love and inspiration that I have deep in my heart, and that’s what keeps me going, keeps me wanting to live.