With 1 in 5 young people suffering from a mental illness (teenmentalhealth.org) and society divided between those who understand what people are going through and those who do not, the tension continues to rise. Ignoring the need for better education and support around mental health is not the answer. By ignoring the rain it does not mean you don’t get wet, and not everyone has an umbrella to keep them dry. The same goes for mental health. It is time to make sure everyone has an umbrella.
Seeking help is a positive step in the right direction, but sometimes this can be difficult to take. Ultimately, the key to making progress is listening to your needs. Your progress may start with something as simple as discussing with someone the support you need or exploring what options you have, e.g. medications or therapy. All the while remembering that, due to the societal stigma, what one person thinks is allowing time for self-compassion, someone else seems to always say it’s selfish or lazy; someone else’s cries for help could be mislabelled as a plea for attention. From my experience with anxiety and depression, I know these types of negative reactions immediately overshadow any encouragement of self-care. But it is so important to listen to those who are supporting you and try your hardest to prioritize your needs rather than focus on the negative.
We need to abandon the sink or swim mentality. Throwing me -a teen of low self-esteem- in the deep end and leaving me to fend for myself is never going to end well.
What if I feel like I am drowning?
Going and getting support should never be discouraged, but unfortunately, sometimes people just don’t understand. This can be truly draining and drags you down further, because being told to “just cope” or “change your mindset” is just about as useful as a chocolate teapot. If someone is drowning you don’t tell them to swim, you throw them a lifebuoy. Why is someone with depression told to just keep smiling?
To explore the effects of mental stigma further I asked a group of people (professionals and students) about their experiences. Names have been changed for anonymity.
Have ever you felt your mental health has been belittled or ignored in an academic/professional workplace?
Liam: “I have felt this way in the past when going through school. Both teachers and students wouldn’t know what I was going through and so I struggled alone. It also did not help that I kept a lot of my issues to myself and told very few people. I feel that sometimes it’s hard to sort someone’s issues as you can’t rearrange around one person.”
Violet: “I had a call centre job where I wanted to go home because I was incredibly upset one day due to mental health. The supervisor I spoke to trivialised the situation, used impersonal “customer service” style language to try to get me to stay and threatened my job twice. I decided to quit the next day, but when I phoned to register my resignation and also complain about the treatment, management implied that I was a liar and tried to fire me before I could resign.”
Ethan: “I’ve never been too comfortable talking about mental health, so I’ve never been ignored about it, but that’s just because I’m too worried to actually say anything.”
Tilly: “I don’t tell people at my work unless I feel I have to because I think that they will hate me or my boss will think my anxiety makes me less of a good worker. Sometimes, I tell co-workers I have insomnia or I’m feeling anxious, I feel like they look at me differently and I usually immediately regret saying anything.”
Have you ever had anyone say you don’t have mental health issues, e.g. you’re too happy to have depression?
Olivia: “I had both ends of the spectrum with my parents, one day telling me I was crazy […]. Another day saying that I was being lazy and grumpy, and said that I was lying/faking it if I said I was depressed or anxious.”
Sam: “Yes, growing up, my parents were very oblivious to mental health issues so when I had some problems arise, they were quite dismissive of it before, but thankfully they changed after receiving a call from school saying that I was standing on the roof of a building crying. My parents changing and supporting me has been one of the greatest blessings I can say I have.”
Liam: “I have heard it to be very common for that to happen, although I don’t recall an experience personally.”
Tilly: “Countless times. One example is after a few months at university, I decided today was the day I am going to actually tell my friends that today […] I don’t want to be in lectures because my attention span is zero- too busy thinking about how much I hate myself basically. I said I’m feeling really anxious today. My friend replied, “Oh don’t be silly, Miss perfect over here. You are way too smart and happy to have an illness… just pick yourself up a bit and everything will go back to how things were yesterday”. I felt completely misunderstood, kind of a fool.”
Owen: “I have been told that I seem too happy to have mental health issues, but that’s largely due to myself not reaching out with them in the first place and keeping them to myself.”
Have you ever felt discriminated against because of your mental health?
Violet: “Yes. I definitely felt that way with the call centre job, and I felt like that environment was not considerate to the health of its employees – mental or physical – particularly since it required long hours of talking to hostile strangers.
Because of bad experiences, and particularly the nature of customer service work, I often feel hesitant to include my depression/anxiety on job applications as I feel it will cause my application to be overlooked.”
Olivia: “I had a panic attack at work once. I ran into a back room, completely abandoning my post. […] My boss didn’t send me home but she did tell my co-workers, while I stood there, that I’d “had a big cry at work today”. Never felt like I was treated the same after that as people were always asking if I was ok, and my boss didn’t seem to trust me with as much responsibility.”
Liam: “Growing up I have felt left out due to having quite bad social anxiety. I feel this may have contributed to me being bullied on a few occasions.”
Owen: “I’m thankful that I’ve never felt discriminated against due to my mental health, I’ve never found myself in a situation where that would be likely.”
Sam: “In the typical context of discrimination, no. But I was treated like I was frail or fragile for a long time […]I told them that they could feel sorry for me, pray for me, or whatever they wanted to do for me (which I am grateful for the people that did) but only when they weren’t around me. When they were around me, I just wanted to be treated like normal.”
Have you ever had someone react badly to you expressing you have been triggered?
Owen: “As my own mental health situation doesn’t have any triggers that I know of, I have yet to find myself in a situation where I’ve had to ask for someone to refrain from using them, of course I’ve been around people that have said and done things that make me uncomfortable but I have always been able to remove myself from those peoples company well enough that it was never an issue.”
Ethan: “My family especially are quite bad with being quite insensitive. My parents are great, but oftentimes my family will make snide remarks or even make explicit jokes that I’ve asked not to.”
Sam: “I’ve been guilty of this myself. My girlfriend has some mental health issues and I’ve pushed past her boundaries on some occasions. In order to keep myself in check with these sorts of things, we’ve made it a tradition now of sitting down once a week and discussing […]. These discussions have made me more aware of when I’m slipping back into my old habits, and allow me to catch myself before I hurt her.”
Tilly: “Once, a boy kept calling me names because of my depression, even though I asked him to stop. He constantly called me emo […] because I was “sad all the time”. He said, “what’s the similarity and difference between emos and onions? Onions and emos both make people cry. But onions don’t cut themselves”. I was disgusted and triggered, and yet everyone said that I was being overdramatic.”
In this weird world we are living in right now please take the time to educate yourself and encourage others to do the same, so that one day it is normal to be treated fairly and with care. In a world where you are “one of the lucky ones” for not being discriminated against,
Check yourself – think about how your attitude may affect someone and remember there is not a one fits all approach. What works for you may not work for someone else – if you or someone you know needs support, please seek it out. No one has to be alone in the rain, there are plenty of umbrellas to go around.