The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month. One of the gifts of this month is that it gives us a platform to talk about a subject that is often taboo: mental illness.
The reason that mental illness is taboo is because of the stigma associated with it. This stigma is based on the perception that someone with a mental illness is crazy, unstable, and essentially unfit for society.
For most of us, this stigma is not our reality. We’ll never hear these words, or other discriminatory language, used to describe someone who suffers from a mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia.
Instead, when it comes to mental illness, we’ll just hear nothing.
In high school and for most of my college years, I suffered from depression. It was a consistent stream of sadness interrupted by waterfalls of self-hatred and cynicism. Some mornings, getting out of bed felt almost impossible. Other mornings, I could function at a normal pace, but I hated everyone and everything, mainly myself.
Throughout my 8 years with depression, I can count on one hand the number of times I told someone how I was feeling, or told someone that I suffered from depression. I remember having the urge to share when I was having a particularly bad day, but then dismissing it and saying nothing, after telling myself that I sounded dramatic. I remember thinking that there was no way I could say how I was feeling out loud because it sounded so ridiculous. Even I didn’t understand why I was sad for no reason, so why would anyone else? In high school and in college, I just wanted to fit in, to feel like I belonged. At the risk of being the only person in my circle who had these feelings, at the risk of being different, I never shared them.
Looking back, hearing someone say, “I have depression,” would’ve been an incredible gift. I would’ve realized that I wasn’t the only person on the planet with these “ridiculous” feelings. I would’ve felt more comfortable sharing, because I’d seen someone else do it, and that person had survived that moment.
Recently, after a yoga class, I asked a friend of mine how he was doing. We were rolling up our mats as other students scurried around us, carrying purple yoga blocks and woven blankets to the prop closet. It was just conversational, the way we say “hi, nice to see you,” to coworkers and to those we pass by in the grocery store.
“How are you, Jan?” I asked.
Jan answered with, “Ah, I had a rough week. You know I’m bipolar, right?”
And there it was. Jan was so casual, the way he mentioned bipolar disorder and the impact that it’d had on his week. He mentioned his mental illness as if it was just part of the story, as if it was something he wouldn’t think twice about including. Although he was casual, he wasn’t discreet. He didn’t lower his voice so that others wouldn’t hear, as I would’ve been tempted to do years ago.
This was the conversation about mental illness that I’d wanted!
Later, when I told Jan how much I admired his sharing, he said, “You needed context.” Rather than leave this detail out of his response, he’d kept it, because it made sense to do so.
If you suffer from a mental illness, the next time that it makes sense to include it as part of the story, I encourage you to do so.