Having a mental illness is no fun, but it’s made all the worse by the stigma which surrounds it. We can’t help but be affected by society’s expectations. Everyone cares what other people think of them. The fact is that society judges those with mental illness negatively.
Often people think that those with mental illness are responsible for their condition. The idea is that those with mental illness are somehow in control of the course of their illness and can choose whether or not to succumb to it. Often it is thought that those that have mental health problems are weak in some way. Perhaps other people suffer from the same problems in life but are of strong enough mind to overcome their difficulties. On this view, whether or not you suffer from a mental illness is all about choice.
Some people may go a step further and think that mental illness doesn’t even exist. You can’t see a mental illness, only observe behaviour. The behaviour can seem strange and scary. It is easier to believe that someone is just ‘crazy’ (a dehumanising word, setting someone apart from yourself and others) rather than imagine that person to be just like you or me but in intense mental pain. Some may just think that the person is behaving this way because they have let themselves go rather than actually suffering from a medical condition.
These kinds of thoughts often lead people to the belief that those with mental health problems are a drain on the state. They read about ‘benefit scroungers’ in the newspapers and believe that someone with a mental illness is unworthy of help. At best, they are weak and lazy. At worst, they are faking it for monetary gain. Either way they see you as a drain on ‘the taxpayer’.
I worry that my friends will be thinking these kinds of things about me when I talk about my mental illness. I don’t think most of them will think I am making it up, but perhaps they think I am lazy and a drain on the state. I claim disability living allowance but I don’t tell many people that. I am sure they can guess though. Maybe they look at me buy new things or go on holiday and resent me for it. Who knows what kinds of things people are thinking when they look at me. I shouldn’t care. Mental illness is not about weakness or choice. I should just shrug it off. They are the ones with the problem with their ignorant views. I shouldn’t care, but I do.
I try to navigate the tricky path with how to behave around other people so as to minimise these kinds of negative judgements. I want to be open and show people what my mental illness really is all about. I want to tell people about the way that I feel and why I end up behaving as I do. Most of my friends know that I have a mental illness. However, I always end up trying to hide the behaviours associated with it to avoid people thinking I am scary or weird. If I am depressed, I act cheery. If I am anxious, I act much more calmly that I feel. If I am manic, I try exceptionally hard to quash down my desires to pace around and laugh wildly.
I have ended up in the strange situation of being open in what I say about my mental illness but acting as if nothing is wrong. Of course, in doing all this behaviour modification, people are going to have a hard time believing that I am really ill. I may have saved face but people are going to wonder why I can’t work when I seem capable enough in front of them.
I know that other people with mental health problems must feel the same way. As well as coping with the illness, we have to deal with the stigma surrounding it. This makes it hard to be completely honest and open with people. However, how are people ever going to understand mental health problems if we all keep quiet about it? It is a tough dilemma because when we are open, we sometimes do get judged negatively by people we think of as friends. We can only hope that real friends will at least try and be compassionate, even if they don’t really understand mental illness.