Today, is World Mental Health Day. In honor of this day, I’m talking about stigma and seeking professional support. Learn more about this day, and read other pieces here.
When psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, was diagnosed with depression, her initial relief turned into shame. As she writes in her book Living with Depression:
…I felt inadequate and embarrassed by my diagnosis. I knew that society feared anything that strayed from the norm, and the idea of being seen as different, disabled, or dysfunctional really frightened me. I didn’t tell anyone about my depression, kept my medication hidden in a bedside dresser, and kept secret my feelings of failure. I even went so far as to believe that I should hang up my shingle as a practicing psychologist because, clearly, I was incapable of taking care of myself as a person. How could I take care of others as a professional? Despite the fact that I was a psychologist educated in the mind, brain and body, the misconceptions about mental illness shoehorned themselves into my life.
Many people with mental illness internalize society’s negative attitudes and start feeling shame. Many don’t seek help. Because there isn’t just a stigma against mental illness in our society; there’s also a stigma against seeking help.
One myth, for instance, is if you seek therapy, then you must be weak. Because you can’t fix whatever it is on your own. Because strong people pick themselves up, dust themselves off and use their strong will to barrel through their problems.
Strong people also don’t take medication, which is seen as a quick fix, a cop-out.
But would we expect a person with diabetes to survive without insulin? Is taking insulin taking the easy way out? Should a person, instead, barrel through roller-coaster blood sugar levels, willing them back to a normal range?
Would we expect someone to just deal with the pain of a broken leg without seeking medical attention? Would we expect someone to ignore a lump in their breast or merely think it away?
Unfortunately, there’s a massive double standard with mental illness. We assume these disorders are simply in a person’s “head.”
Mental illness is complex and varies in severity. What causes such illnesses as depression and bipolar disorder is an intricate interplay of factors — genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental.
As my friend and brilliant blogger Therese Borchard writes in her piece “What I Wish People Knew About Depression“:
I wish people knew that depression is complex, that it is a physiological condition with psychological and spiritual components, and therefore can’t be forced into any neat and tidy box, that healing needs to come from lots of kinds of sources and that every person’s recovery is different.
I wish people knew that depression doesn’t happen in a vacuum and is part of an intricate web of biological systems (nervous, digestive, endocrine, respiratory), that depression is about the gut as well as the brain, the thyroid and the nerves, that we would have better health in this country if we approached depression with a holistic view.
Seeking professional help takes courage and strength. It means facing your illness or issues head-on. It means exercising good judgment, because you realize that you need support.
Participating in treatment takes hard work. It often means learning new skills, unlearning unhealthy patterns, and keeping a consistent schedule.
There is nothing nothing weak about that.
Some people with mental illness need to take medication. They aren’t seeking a quick fix. They’re treating their illness.
If you have a mental illness, please don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Consult a psychiatrist or therapist for a comprehensive evaluation and diagnosis. If that practitioner doesn’t work out, that’s OK. Find another professional who can help you.
If you don’t have a mental illness, but you’re still struggling, remember that you can go to therapy at any time for any issue. There’s no weakness, or shame, in that either.
As psychologist Ryan Howes told me in this piece, many people go to therapy for help with a sinking self-esteem, communication problems in their relationships, and organizing their lives.
“[O]thers go to make a good life great and seek guidance for reaching their full potential in their career, relationships or spirituality, he said.
And, if you’re someone who doesn’t know much about mental illness, please get educated. I know there’s a lot of information out there, and some of it may be confusing (and, sadly, even wrong). I also know we’re all pressed for time.
Mental illness affects one in four people. It touches all of us. Getting educated is simply part of being an informed, compassionate human being. It’s one way — a powerful way — each of us can break a link in the chain of mental health stigma.