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This article is inspired by Time to Talk Day, which takes place in the UK on February 4th.
Although I’ve been living with mental ill-health for nineteen years, I struggled to accept the reality of my situation for most of that time. I was deeply ashamed for not being strong enough, and I desperately tried to conceal my suffering. It was not a conscious decision; avoidance just felt natural. I had grown up with the stigma of mental illness all around me—and I had hopped on that bandwagon.
As I question the nature of mental health stigma, I realize that it is lodged in us from early childhood.
I believe prejudice is at fault. Most people don’t intend to spread their prejudice. As a child, my parents used to tell me about my relative with “the nervous disposition.” This comment was not meant as harmful, but the negative message still permeated.
These kinds of conversations paint mental illness as something abnormal—which it isn’t—and something to avoid.
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It creates an “us” and “them” mentality. “Us” refers to “normal” people and “them” to people who are mentally ill. It stands to reason that these attitudes only segregate and lessen empathy and understanding towards people living with mental illnesses.
The lack of conversation surrounding mental illness can be damaging.
Many parents do not take the time to talk to their children when they should. They fail to ask how their kids really are. I was that teenager who regularly arrived home from school in a funk. I was irritable and short-fused—but mostly because I had a lot on my mind.
I did not realize it at the time, but what I needed was that conversation.
However, my parents worked demanding jobs and had a younger, needier child to take care of.
We should not hold it against our parents. Many happen to fall into that old trap: feeling that they don’t have enough time. Most excel at physical care, but they neglect their children’s mental health.
This lack of acknowledgment towards their mental struggles teaches children particular messages. Life does not make room for weakness, sadness, or differences.
“Positivity messages” are not blameless either.
I feel they can adversely affect our perception of mental illness. One such phrase that was tossed around my school days was: “It’s okay—be happy!” I feel these kinds of messages can seem more like platitudes than real advice. I don’t disagree with the sentiment per se. However, I think when they are misplaced and over-used, they lose all meaning.
If one needs a little boost, then fine. However, if one wants to address the root of their problem, this is little more than lip service. They never address the real problem. They can also be a gross misrepresentation of one’s state of reality. For this reason, they can be truly destructive.
I was miserable from age fifteen throughout my teens.
At that time, I was preoccupied with one thought: “It’s not meant to be this way.” This internal dialogue only worsened my situation. I berated myself for not being able to “snap out of it.”
I did not seek solutions; I merely railed against my own reality.
By the time many of us reach adolescence, it’s no surprise that our views on mental health have crystallized.
During this formative period, teenagers’ emotional and psychological worlds become more complex. This can bring about inner turbulence.
The need for teens to express themselves and confront these emotions can be at odds with a lifetime’s worth of negativity surrounding mental health. This may explain a lot of the inner conflict that many teenagers experience.
I think this is why they often mask their true feelings—sometimes to detrimental effects.
I was continuously bullied as a teenager, which resulted in much pain and anxiety.
However, I could not show my emotions or share my experiences with anyone. I felt it was unacceptable to struggle mentally, let alone reveal it to others.
By keeping silent, I did myself an enormous disservice.
Related: Sarah: Free from Silence
Like other teenagers, this inability to show my vulnerability was no fault of my own. I, too, was a product of my environment.
So, ask yourself: Is it okay to have mental illness? Is it okay to not be okay?
Is something wrong with us if we don’t “soldier on”? Will we diminish our struggles, writing it off as—”Just another bad day”? It is so harmful how society has taught us to hide our true feelings from the people in our lives.
I believe we can break this internal and universal silence, one person at a time.
Many of us have experienced mental illness in some form at some stage. If more people can open up about their own experiences, we can see the similarities we share as humans.
So, be brave enough to say—”I am struggling. It is part of being human. I accept that”.
Last year, I took that leap. I was wrestling with my identity as someone living with anxiety and depression for many years.
It was challenging to bring myself to that point, where I felt ready to face my reality. However, when I happened across a neglected passion, it gave me unexpected strength.
As a teenager, I had written to better express, understand, and validate myself. Writing became my communication aid once again.
I began sharing my writing with family for the first time.
It enabled me to share my mental health struggles. I felt such relief to be able to unburden those silent years. I realized I did not want to hide anymore.
The veil of shame had lifted at last. I was proud of who I was.
This is how I confronted my own mental illness. Whether it’s brief or ongoing, everyone has their own story to tell about their experiences with mental illness. I used my writing to tell mine.
I encourage you to break your silence in a way that feels right to you. It could change your life.
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