BADD 2011: Fighting the stigma of mental illness

I almost missed this, but today is Blogging Against Disablism Day, which I first took part in last year.

Ever since my diagnosis (first with SAD -Seasonal Affective Disorder- then also with “regular” depression) I was aware that people might judge me. It’s still much less acceptable to say “Sorry, can’t come, having a bad depression day” than “Sorry, can’t come, have the flu”. However, I was also very glad to finally know what the heck was wrong with me and be able to do something about it. This led me to decide right from the start to decide to always be honest about my mental health, and my experiences have mostly been positive. People usually seem surprised, because they have a skewed image of what people with mental illness are like – because it’s still a topic that one doesn’t talk about, as I discovered when people reacted to my honesty with admissions of their own. It confirmed that I wasn’t alone, that mental illnesses are much more common than most of us think.

I have to admit to using vague excuses, like “I’m under the weather” or “not feeling very good”, when I don’t feel I have the extra energy (or, as I like to say, batteries) required to brace myself for the assumption that I could do it if I only pulled myself together. Even well-meaning people can inadvertently cause a lot of pain for someone who’s already in a fragile place by belittling their experience and making them feel as if they don’t have the right to be accepted with their limitations. I still remember clearly the pain I felt when the husband of a friend of my mother’s said right to my face that he didn’t “believe in depression”, as if the illness that had shaped my life in that time was Santa Claus or some other mythical creature.

When someone tells you that they’re depressed (or have some other form of mental illness), it’s a sign of trust – they trust you that you won’t make matters worse, won’t disbelieve or diminish their reality. The problem is, of course, that many people think they don’t know anyone with a mental illness, because so many of us remain silent – for good reasons, because honesty can cause more damage, add to our burdens. Which is why I decided that, because my depression is quite mild and I generally live in quite privileged circumstances (strong family support, good education, valuable work experience, etc.), I’d take every opportunity to be open about my mental health. Call it my contribution to the fight against disablism. 🙂

I faced the first real trial of my convictions during the job hunt I went through earlier this year: I made it a point of mentioning my depression whenever I had the chance. Sometimes already in my application (usually when applying in the disability or wider social justice sector) but always in interviews. Friends pointed out to me that I was under no obligation to disclose, that I might lose out because prospective employers weren’t sure how to handle my honesty, what it might mean in the workplace. They were right, of course, and as the months dragged on I did have doubts, but in the end I stuck to my guns – not just out of principle but because I don’t see myself working somewhere where I have to hide this part of who I am.

This is the way I have the chosen, the fight I will always fight – but I am fully aware that many people with mental illness cannot afford to do the same for many reasons: because their health doesn’t allow it, they can’t take the risk of alienating their employers or friends, or they just don’t have the energy (or “spoons“) to take on this additional challenge. Living with mental illness (like other invisible disabilities) comes with enough challenges as it is because, while we can often pass as “normal”, our disability is “all in the brain”, which many people seem to take to mean that it’s not real, or at least less real than physical ailments (which is not saying that people with physical disabilities have it easier – we’re not playing oppression olympics here!).

Considering that all of us interpret the world around us through our brains, this has always struck me as a rather skewed way of looking at things – because obviously, if your brain chemistry is wonky or just different, it changes everything, no less so than if your body is no cooperating. I think public perception is slowly changing, the stigma lessening as more people gain personal experience with depression and other mental illness. This is basically what I hope to do: personalize mental illness – and maybe, hopefully, next time they encounter mental illness somewhere, they remember that I was a person just like anyone else.