While we’ve made big strides as a society in being accepting of people with all sorts of illnesses, mental illness is often an under-discussed, hidden disease. It’s often the family secret kept about an aunt or uncle who just doesn’t get talked about or the unexplained day off of work you hide from friends and coworkers. I’ve made a big effort recently to try and make mental health a centerpiece of the show to try and bring it out of the shadows and make it acceptable to talk about openly.
This May is Mental Health Month and this year’s goal is to help people share their story of mental illness with those around them. To give you a little motivation, I want to spend some time making the argument for why disclosing mental illness to others is so incredibly important, both for you and for those you share your story with.
Mental Illness Shouldn’t Be Dominated by Stereotypes
One of the reasons people who suffer from mental illness are so afraid to share their diagnosis with others is because of the horrible stereotypes and misperceptions that have circulated in our society about what it means to live with mental illness. People with schizophrenia have been portrayed as people with split personalities and are often depicted in the media as being violent and unpredictable. The word “bipolar” has been stolen by popular culture to talk about someone who can’t make up their mind or who flips between opinions. And depression is often just thought of as feeling sad. These stereotypes aren’t only inaccurate, but they belittle what it means to live and struggle with mental illness.
It’s not until you talk to someone with schizophrenia that you understand how terrifying it can be to find yourself unable to differentiate what’s real and what’s in your mind. It’s only in seeing someone go through manic and depressive episodes in bipolar disorder that you see the illness goes far beyond being emotionally confused. And when you eventually delve into the life of someone who has depression, you see that it can lead to a hopelessness and exhaustion more profound than many of us will experience in our lifetime. Speaking to someone who lives with mental illness, either currently or who is in recovery, helps dispel the myths and misperceptions that make those with mental illness feel so ashamed of their condition. Those who live and struggle with mental illness are out friends, family, coworkers, and public figures.
Opening Up About Your Struggles Helps Others Do the Same
The thing about shame is that it gains strength in the shadows, but shrivels when exposed to the light. The stigma around mental illness will only last as long as people feel the need to hide it from others. Once people overcome the shame they feel and come forward with their experience, many others do the same. This is one of the major reasons I’ve had people share their stories on the show. Many who disclosed mental illness to others feared they would be laughed at, socially shunned, or fired from their jobs. But instead, the opposite often happens. They find other people who share similar struggles and who are either in recovery or in the process of dealing with a mental illness of their own. They realize these people were also afraid and ashamed of what might happen if others found out. When you have the courage to speak openly about your mental illness, you empower others to do so as well and break the cycle of shame and stigma that keeps us all silent.
Finding Support May Also Lead to Better Treatment
When I was training as a medical student and resident, I paid very little attention to the brain. After all, my domain was the chest. I figured that what was going on in the heads of my patients really had nothing to do with their heart. But mental wellness is truly at the core of physical health. Unless we have the brain on board, the rest of the body can’t follow, no matter how hard we work to be healthy. I’ve found that when patients hide a mental illness from me or might be living without a diagnosis, they struggle to live the healthy lives I think they’re capable of. But when we start to care for their brain as well as their body, treatment is suddenly easier and recovery happens faster.
The message is clear to me: Mental illness, like any other illness, requires professional help. In the same way that you need a doctor when you’re having a heart attack, you need a mental health professional when you’re having a depressive episode or a psychotic break. The problem is, it’s hard to find help if you’re not open about your diagnosis. Once other know you’re living with a mental illness, they can work with you to find the most appropriate help. Health care providers can connect you to helpful services and those you love can support you more effectively during times of crisis. Opening up to others and telling your story allows others to better understand where you’re coming from and what they can do help.
Living in Recovery Is Possible
Many of the people I’ve talked to who live with mental illness have told me how hopeless the initial diagnosis can feel. While it can affirm that there really is something wrong, many wonder whether they’ll ever be able to live normally again. Fortunately, recovery is possible for a lot of people. Through medical treatment, therapy, and community support, those living with mental illness often recover to lead normal, healthy lives. If you’re living in recovery, sharing your story with others is one of the most powerful things you can do. It fights back against the perception that people with mental illness are all “crazy” and “insane,” that they’re scary and violent, and that they’ll never be fit to live in society or hold down a job. It shows that mental illness is just an illness of the brain in the same way that COPD is a disease of the lungs and diabetes is a disease of the pancreas. With help and support, it can be effectively treated.
Don’t let stigma push you into the shadows. If you’ve struggled with mental illness, share your story with others this May. Together, we can bring mental illness into the light and make sure that everyone gets the help and treatment they deserve.