Erasing the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness
Anxiety disorders and depression are often faceless — as well as misunderstood and mistreated
I had my first panic attack in eighth grade and was convinced I was dying.
My heart felt like it’d stopped, my skin prickled, and the most intense fear overwhelmed me one idle afternoon. I ran to the school bathroom, blinded by sweat and tears, and collapsed on the floor as the world went black. A static buzz filled my ears.
This was death, but it was a lot slower than I had imagined. Each second was a lifetime. But as quickly as it had started, it stopped. The world refocused, the ringing faded, and I was very much alive.
I’m 26 now, and this has been my life since. I have generalized anxiety disorder, mixed in with obsessive-compulsive disorder and periodic bouts of depression. I’m functional, but I have ups and downs.
From the outside, I seem fine: I write for Rolling Stone and The Guardian and have my life together. Inside is what you don’t notice: the swirling panic, the persistent feelings of dread and existentialism, the barrage of racing thoughts.
You cannot see mental illness. Unlike a heart condition, where you can pinpoint exactly on an EKG how things are going wrong, there is no photo or video or slip of paper that lets you visualize your mental health. As a lifelong battle that is often faceless and cureless, mental illness is misunderstood and mistreated.
There is a stigma. Mental health is not prioritized in society like physical health. I can’t call in sick because I’m having a bad mental health day — I’m expected to power through. But you don’t power through high blood pressure. You don’t throw on a crown of positivity and will yourself past it, as if you focus hard enough your blood pressure will magically drop. To suggest so is preposterous, but that’s the go-to answer for mental illness.
If I tell someone I’m having anxiety, they ask what’s making me anxious. But anxiety is not feeling anxious, and depression is not feeling sad. They are caused by chemical conditions in your brain, yet neither are identities.
Anxiety is like having a bag over your head that tightens and loosens at its own convenience, at times suffocating you.
Depression, on the other hand, is perfectly illustrated in the Harry Potter series. Author J.K. Rowling, who has dealt with depression herself, creates a metaphor of the illness with dementors, black-hooded creatures that cause one to feel bleak, to feel so empty and drained of life that the darkness is impenetrable.
It’s hard to explain these things to people. Boyfriends have a hard time sticking around when you spend most of your time worrying about what doesn’t exist. Anxiety leads to reclusion, and not everyone wants a friend who appears and disappears. But people who understand are gems, because in a world so full of mental illness — it is estimated that one in every five adults experiences mental illness in a given year — we still see it as taboo, as strange, unimaginable, and complex, which in turn leads to more silence and stigma.
Still, if I had a choice to give up mental illness, I wouldn’t. It’s a daily battle, but it’s one that helps me better understand myself, the world, and the connections we develop among ourselves. Like any pain or suffering, it can become a tool to grow stronger and to empower others because we are never alone in this.
To help erase the stigma surrounding mental illness, I ask those who have not experienced it to listen closely and to not take it personally if loved ones need space. I then ask those who experience it to never feel ashamed to ask for help. Talk about it, because you are deserving of respect.
Lastly, I ask doctors reading this essay to prioritize the long-term health of their patients. Don’t prescribe benzodiazepines or other tranquilizers just because they act quickly and easily. I’m a recovering addict who was prescribed Xanax at a young age as a long-term solution, and it wreaked havoc on me. I know that you can and will do better.
And most importantly, remember that mental illness is a lifelong struggle. Provide your patients with resources they can turn to in times of need. Together, we can end the stigma.