Since 1990, when Congress officially established the first full week of October as Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW), advocates have worked together to sponsor activities, large or small, to educate the public about mental illness. The theme of this year’s Mental Illness Awareness Week is, “What People with Mental Illness Want You to Know.” Throughout the week, we will be raising the voices of those with lived experiences to talk about the conditions and symptoms that are most misunderstood.
The people we keep around us have a profound effect on our emotional and mental well-being. As the saying goes, “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. Of course, we want to surround ourselves with individuals who offer us sound advice, comfort us when we are in need, laugh with us, support us, listen to us and allow us to express our own feelings and opinions. Every now and again, we have the unfortunate run-in with individuals who do not have our best interests at heart, and instead may try to cause harm or bring ill will into our lives. Mental illness is still heavily stigmatized today. For those diagnosed with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or another mental health disorder, being surrounded by individuals who want to make a positive change is imperative. Below are a few key pointers of “what people with mental illness want you to know” in hopes that you can be a better advocate and a better friend.
Mental illness is “not all in the head”
Often, individuals with a mental health disorder are told to “just snap out of it”, as if their illness is something they made up, chose or something they can easily forget about by busying themselves with something else. Mental health disorders are genetic and are often associated with deep underlying triggers related to past events, personality traits, or neurochemistry imbalances. People cannot just “snap out of it” or change overnight. Living with a mental health disorder is a lifelong journey and some days are better than others.
Individuals with mental illness are not asking you for a solution
Those who have a mental health disorder are not asking you to fix them. They most likely have tried to get outside, practice meditation, and engage in activities they love. Oftentimes hearing a laundry list of solutions for depression or anxiety can be unwarranted and stressful. Even if you are trying to help, sometimes offering unprovoked advice can be more harmful than helpful.
Medication for mental illness is a private matter
Unfortunately, so many people seem to have an opinion on mental health medications. Some people suggest to go off anti-depressants while others believe medications are the solution to cure every mental health disorder. The choices to begin, continue or discontinue medications for mental health disorders are personal choices that are made between the individual and the prescribing physician. Our society does not tell people who have diabetes to stop taking their insulin or tell someone with a broken leg; they should increase their pain medicine or go off it altogether. Medication for mental health should be no different and should be respected as a private matter.
“Tough love” only makes things worse
Giving someone the cold shoulder, telling someone they need to get stronger, advising someone to go outside and breathe in fresh air, and assuming the individual is weak and just needs to “toughen up” are all detrimental to anyone struggling with a mental health disorder. Tough only alienates these individuals and make them feel weak. Individuals who have a mental health disorder want support and love. They don’t want to be pushed away and for others to assume they are weak.
Not everyone experiences the same symptoms
The diagnostic criterion for each mental health disorder is quite extensive, and many of these disorders have a vast array of signs and symptoms that vary among each individual. Not everyone with depression will experience the same symptoms of the same severity of each symptom. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and PTSD look different for each individual. If you have a family member with anxiety or depression and discuss with a friend about his/her mental health disorder, be sure not to compare the two. Do not tell your friend what works for your relative. Do not assume you understand what your friend is experiencing because you know someone else with a similar illness.
Moods and emotions can easily be covered up by an outside appearance
Looking upset or anxious often draws unwanted attention, and therefore individuals with mental health disorders are good at putting on a “happy face”. Often, they don’t want to burden others and may feel ashamed for being depressed and don’t want to become weak. Wearing a happy face in public is a common defense mechanism to mask the deep emotional pain they are experiencing on the inside.
Mental illness is not about seeking attention
Individuals with depression or another mental health disorder are not trying to seek out attention. It is quite the opposite as many of these individuals choose to isolate themselves from friends and family out of fear they will be misunderstood or judged. Individuals with mental health disorders may act out, not for attention but as a way to express their frustration and despair. Labeling someone as an “attention seeker” can be extremely harmful, hurtful, and only perpetuates the stigma surrounding mental health.
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