My struggle with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder started young. Though I first started showing symptoms around age four, they really came to a head at age seven. My parents — having no idea that something was really wrong — chalked the manifestations of my disorders up to personality quirks and just plowed through any problems encountered like bulls through a china shop.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was scared all the time. I hated meeting new people. Talking to or even making eye contact with strangers would cause me to break into a cold sweat. Every choice I made was tempered by thoughts of a worst case scenario. I didn’t climb trees because I might fall out and break my neck. I didn’t want my bed positioned under the window in my room because a burglar might break in and stab me. I didn’t leave the sides of the swimming pool because I might drown. I wouldn’t let my parents lock their bedroom door at night because there might be a fire and I’d be unable to reach them.
These “what ifs” plagued me well into adulthood, changing shape to match whatever concerned me most at the time. It was only at age 28, when repeated panic attacks caused by encountering elderly people (I was afraid of growing old and losing control of my body) finally caused me to talk to my doctor about my fears. After a long discussion, he gave me a diagnosis, prescribed me some antidepressants, and pointed me toward therapy.
Managing my anxiety disorder and OCD is a full-time job. It’s more than just popping a pill every morning and talking things out with my therapist every other week. It’s a concentrated effort to slow my racing thoughts, take deep breaths, and think things through logically. I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that it’s a constant struggle. That said, there is a silver lining.
Coping with and educating myself on my mental illnesses has brought me face to face with the stigma and hurdles surrounding mental health in America. As such, I’ve become an advocate for crushing said stigma and improving mental healthcare for everyone. Part of that advocacy is sharing what I’ve learned with others — and that’s what I’m here to talk about today.
Why Mental Health Matters
When you look at the statistics, it’s pretty easy to see why mental health should be at the forefront of our collective consciousness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that by 2020, depression will be the second most common cause of disability in the world, subsequent only to heart disease. Mood disorders (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc.) are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. Ninety percent of individuals who die by suicide have a mental illness.
For those who suffer from mental illness, it can often prove to be an isolating, internal struggle. However, it’s also a public health issue — and it’s about time we all started paying attention. In the U.S. alone, mental health disorders cost billions of dollars in both direct and indirect costs. Besides the obvious expenses (prescriptions, therapy, healthcare), there’s also business costs, such as diminished productivity, absenteeism, and unemployment. Ultimately, it’s the human cost that’s most distressing; immense pain and suffering, shattered families and friendships, and suicide.
How To Be Part of The Solution
Despite the clear proof that mental illness is incredibly common, it’s still widely stigmatized. To fight stigma and encourage more people to seek treatment, we need to loudly and repeatedly spread the message that mental illnesses are not only treatable, they’re nothing to be ashamed of. But before we do that, we need to educate ourselves further. Here are a few things you can do to destigmatize mental illness.
Stop Telling People to “Get Over It”
Telling someone with a mental illness to “get over it” is like telling someone with AIDS to reinforce their immune system with their thoughts. Not only is it completely ridiculous, it also discounts the struggles they have and are continuing to endure. Mental illness is not a choice, and no one would ever actively choose to have one. It cannot be wished away.
One may think that taking a “tough love” approach will help motivate someone to overcome their mental illness. While it’s true that people with mental illnesses must participate in their own recovery, actually moving forward with treatment is far more difficult than you might imagine.
Mental illness is often accompanied by a genetic predisposition and can be triggered by a major life change. Neither of these are things within a person’s control. Recovery is a long, difficult process — it’s not something someone can just “snap out of.” The fact of the matter is that people with mental illnesses cannot always be “cured”; most of the time they have to learn how to live with their disorders. It’s your job to be as understanding of this and patient with them as possible.
Watch Your Language
“She’s crazy,” “I’m so OCD,” and “he’s completely bipolar,” — we toss words like this around on a daily basis without fully realizing the impact they can have. This type of language reinforces the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and what’s more, it hurts people. One in six adults in the U.S. have a mental illness. You never know who’s listening or how your comments may affect them. After all, they’re going through something incredibly painful and debilitating while those around them speak about it flippantly.
Over the past few decades, our language has become increasingly hyperbolic. Because of this, someone might say they’re having a panic attack when they’re just stressed or claim to be “OCD” because they like organizing things in a certain manner. However, this causes a disconnect between language and meaning, making it difficult for people with legitimate mental illnesses to be taken seriously. Furthermore, these terms — when directed at others — are often done so negatively. What follows is that the words begin to acquire and change meaning, taking on a negative association. Then, when people are diagnosed with one of these illnesses, they perceive themselves as being bad or deficient in some way.
Hanlon’s razor tells us not to attribute malice or cruelty to what might be more adequately explained by thoughtlessness or ignorance. When people toss mental illness diagnoses around casually, it’s not likely that they’re doing so with an intent to hurt someone. But, just as we’ve learned not to use certain language to refer to someone’s race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or physical or cognitive abilities, we can learn not to use mental health terms superficially.
Normalize Therapy & Medication
Despite (slight) progress in mental health insurance coverage, 56 percent of American adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment. Like so many things, this is generally due to stigma. Societal expectations have led many people to believe that only “crazy people” have to see a therapist. By making them feel as if there’s something shameful about having a mental health issue, it makes it incredibly difficult for them to seek help. What’s worse, when they do admit they need help, they’re treated as if doing so means they’re weak.
There’s also a stigma surrounding medication. As stated earlier in the article, people with mental illnesses are often told if they try hard enough, they can easily rid themselves of their disorder. They’re told meditation, exercise, yoga, or certain supplements are all they need to get better — and that prescription medication is a crutch. If we use anesthetic when undergoing surgery in order to reduce pain, why wouldn’t we use antidepressants or antipsychotics to reduce the crippling effects of mental illness? By invalidating the severity of a person’s symptoms, you’ll only cause them greater internal pain — and that can have devastating consequences.
It takes extraordinary strength to seek help and keep up with a treatment program. Though different treatment methods work for different people, whatever steps someone is taking to further their recovery are good ones. Unless you’re a mental health professional (and your advice has been sought), keep your opinions on therapy and medication to yourself.
Understand the Link Between Mental and Physical Illnesses
Mental illnesses are not imagined, nor are they “all in a person’s head.” Though the causes are still not fully understood, mental disorders can have a significant adverse physical effect on those who suffer from them. Barry Southers, a professor at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash, explains, “Many mental health illnesses are directly linked to physical changes—such as brain deterioration—and devices like the MRI can be used to promote hard evidence, efficiently portraying that mental illnesses are authentic and critical health concerns.”
Keep the Conversation Going
As a society, it’s time we start regarding mental disorders as we do other chronic medical conditions. We need to educate both children and adults on the intricacies of mental illness so they’ll be aware if they start exhibiting symptoms and can seek help. The current stigma surrounding mental health disorders isolates those who need support the most. We need to come together, to show compassion, to be role models, and to take the initiative to improve the mental health of all Americans. It’s our responsibility to future generations.
Do you struggle with a mental illness? Is there anything we should add to this list?
Get more like this—Subscribe to our daily inspirational newsletter for exclusive content!