How to End the Mental Health Stigma Club

As I join the league of warriors against stigma, I find that there is plenty of work to still be done. For every story of a woman who’s boss lauded her for specifying that the days she needed off were for her mental health, there are stories where the mere mention out loud of seeing a psychologist would render a worker suddenly incapable of getting a promotion. Discrimination is usually a reaction misunderstanding or being scared. I hope I can help you understand so that you’re not scared.

I remember when I first received a diagnosis from a therapist. I had finally gotten the courage to take advantage of the counseling offered at my college. I feel like there is a discernible line in my life before I had words to explain what was going on, and after.

Before someone gave a name to what I was going through, I would hide my quirks or cover them up quickly enough so that they came off as just minor ailments. Like pretending to suddenly get a call, or saying I have to pee urgently. And it worked for a while. Suddenly shaking caused by a painful, vivid memory racing through my mind? Blame it on caffeine. Crying can be blamed on…what else? Being close to my period.  

The problem with lying to other people is that you can’t really lie to yourself. Knowing that something isn’t right, but not being able to explain it even to myself, only feeds the panic and isolation. Sure, I said my trembling hands were because of the latte I had in the morning, but I don’t even like coffee. So why on earth are my hands shaking?

Eventually, things got really bad and I started avoiding people because the quirks were getting harder to hide. So, I went to a professional.

What a relief that was. Once you’re diagnosed, those quirks are no longer just weird things you do, they’re symptoms, normal symptoms for someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In therapy, I learned I needed to give myself space to let the panic pass. Knowing what was wrong with me, offered some personal comfort.

Now socially, that’s another story. Having symptoms and not weird quirks implies illness. And illness is a weakness. Weakness is something to be hidden, lest someone use it against you while you try to move on with your life goals.

Getting an official diagnosis concluded my cycle of being scared of myself, but it started a new one.  One, where I felt isolated, less than, and broken. Now I had a therapist help me work through it, but social intolerance is a lot to fight against when you’re already not feeling 100%.

I found that some friends (and family) who were ok with me being weird, were not ok with the explanation for the weirdness. As soon as I confessed that my shaking wasn’t caused by Starbucks, I heard a lot more “well can’t you just stop?” and “why are you even doing that, there’s nothing to be nervous about.” Sure, in some cases, it was just a few people being dicks. But some legitimately meant well and wanted to be there, but were just scared.

The best thing that anyone did for me in that moment was not assume anything. They asked if there was anything they could do and then just made sure I wasn’t alone. They knew I didn’t know what I needed and they didn’t assume the worst of me and that made me feel less out of place.

I am hoping that someday, enough people acknowledge that it’s ok to have problems, diagnosed or not, that the notion of mental illness rendering a human less than will become outdated. We did this for cancer. We did this for polio. We can do it for depression and schizophrenia.

With 6.9% of Americans reporting to have suffered a depressive episode in 2012 alone, we shouldn’t be saying things like, “what now all millennials are depressed” or “you just need to think positively more”. 6.9% is not a huge number. The problem doesn’t need to be further minimized. Maybe focusing on learning more instead will help those who need help become comfortable with receiving it.  Not doing so, leaves people waiting longer to get better. And for those of us who do get help, it feels like you’ve joined a club so secret, even its members don’t know who’s in the club with them.

The stigma club is shitty. It doesn’t even have jackets. It offers no free cigars and requires you to pay with your health. It’s outdated and the bourbon sucks. It’s past time we left and never looked back.