By Jayden Jones, Opinion Editor
World Mental Health Day was celebrated on Saturday, October 10. During a time when the only certainty is uncertainty, the discussion about mental illness and the stigma that accompanies it is more important than ever. Here are three common misconceptions about mental illness and what you can do to educate yourself, others, and your community.
- Mental illness isn’t real.
The sheer number of people in my life whose suffering is constantly invalidated by friends, family, religious leaders, or even strangers, who believe that mental illness is little more than a myth is overwhelming. It’s difficult to trace this belief back to a specific moment, to understand when as a culture, we began to tell ourselves that our own mental battles, and those of others was nothing more than an emotional exaggeration, that everyone exists with the same emotional tendencies, patterns, and ranges.
It’s difficult to understand why your mother, teacher, or priest doesn’t see your diagnosis as legitimate. It’s painful.
The odds that you’ll encounter someone who has bought into this misconception are high. Therefore, it’s more important than ever that you establish a strong support system of people who validate and empathize with your mental illness. Mine consists of my mom, my therapist, and a group of friends who also struggle with anxiety and depression. Our shared experiences, their willingness to listen, and their advocacy for my mental health has been invaluable and something that I can depend on when my symptoms worsen, or when something triggers an anxiety attack.
- Mental illness is your fault.
I will work to destroy this misconception for as long as I live. As a middle schooler unable to get out of the car to go to school, unable to sleep, unable to go to a new place alone, I thought there was something wrong with me. This was not at all helped by comments from well intentioned friends and family members such as, “Well, you just shouldn’t worry about that.” or, “Can’t you just tell yourself that everything will be fine?”
It’s amazing to me, that even in the deepest places of our hearts, we tell ourselves that the depression that leaves us unable to function for weeks, the panic attacks that last for hours, even the lingering, constant presence of anxiety is something that we are personally responsible for. Say it with me, folks: Chemical. Imbalance. Mental health disorders can arise from most any circumstance: trauma, environmental changes, genetics, etc. They do not make you who you are, they do not make you “less than” or “other.” The next time you’re consoling an anxious friend, or having a breakdown yourself, do me a favor and say it out loud. “This is not my fault. This is not your fault.” Those words have power and we need to use them.
- Therapy is only for people with “real problems.”
First of all, everyone has real problems. Life is full of real problems. Therapy is a space where you have the chance to sort through, unpack, and work on letting go of those problems. For me, its a time to strategize with my therapist how I can best manage my feelings and symptoms and reverse some of my habitual thought patterns that drive my anxiety, such as I’m not good enough, I’m a failure, etc.
Therapy is available for everyone, even someone who doesn’t have a diagnosed mental illness. Sometimes, it’s just nice to have someone who will paraphrase your thoughts and feelings back to you so that you can look at them from a different perspective. You deserve to have that space and time to focus on your feelings with someone who can actually help you, not just a friend or a family member.
Having a mental illness can feel like fighting an uphill battle. Sometimes it feels like no matter how hard you try, how many therapy sessions you attend, how many breathing exercises you do, nothing will ever change. Sometimes it can feel isolating, shameful, infuriating, even. That’s why celebrating World Mental Health Day matters–we need to take every opportunity we can to remind ourselves that we are not alone, that our emotions are valid, and that our mental health matters.