Last week, I read my worst nightmare in headline form: “Stop Whoring Out Your Undiagnosed ‘Mental Illness.‘”
Gut-punch. Straight where it hurts.
The piece is essentially a message to people who claim they have “anxiety or depression online and IRL (in real life) based on their own self-diagnosis.” The author’s thesis is people who haven’t been diagnosed by a doctor with a mental illness share “relatable” anxiety and depression videos just to get attention.
She then suggests those people should see a professional to find out one of three scenarios: 1) You’re having normal thoughts and everything is fine with your mental health; 2) You have an anxiety disorder or depressive disorder; or 3) You you have a completely different mental illness you have been wrongfully labeling as anxiety and depression.
It’s never a bad thing to encourage someone to seek professional help.
But if only it were that simple.
As someone who lives with and writes about living with anxiety, I question the validity of my mental health issues every day. Every time I open up, I pay for it later in the form of mean, bullying thoughts: Your problems aren’t that bad. Who are you to be writing about this? You’re being dramatic, exaggerating. There are so many people who have it worse.
When a piece I wrote about living with high-functioning anxiety went somewhat viral, I (ironically) had a really bad few weeks. I couldn’t shake the thoughts that told me I was a fraud, an attention-seeker. When I expressed this concern to my boyfriend, he laughed, kissed my forehead and said, “Trust me, Sarah. You’re that anxious.”
I don’t have a certificate that says I have an anxiety disorder. I’ve only had one therapist, who I decided wasn’t for me after a few months. I haven’t found another one yet. I’m 23, and many people develop mental illnesses in their early 20s. I’m new to this and so are a lot of people who are maybe just experiencing mental health issues for the first time.
But I write about my anxiety. I share about my anxiety. I relate to articles about anxiety.
When I see, “stop whoring out your undiagnosed mental illness…” I’m brought back to a time before I was open about living with anxiety. Before I was calling anxiety by its name. It wasn’t because I wasn’t familiar with mental illness — my brother has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and I watched him go through what I thought was the “classic” (and therefore only) trajectory for having a real, valid mental illness: have a mental health crisis, get hospitalized, get a diagnosis, get some medication, figure out “recovery.” Of course, it was was little more complicated, with more hospitalizations, treatment centers and medication changes in between.
Even though looking back I can see I was struggling, I never reached out to my peers because I thought I knew what a “real” mental illness looked like. I didn’t reach out for support because I thought it would seem like I was complaining, attention-seeking. I was afraid of people, like the author of this piece, scoffing at me and my “undiagnosed” mental illness.
The author writes: “The average person wouldn’t say they have cancer and then ask for support from friends and family without being diagnosed. So why is it socially acceptable to do this with a mental illness?”
While I’m all on board the “we should treat mental illnesses like physical illnesses” train, we can’t pretend we can diagnose every mental illness like we can cancer. Many mental illnesses, especially anxiety and depression, exist on scale of severity. It isn’t as clear cut as getting diagnosed with cancer. It just isn’t. It often begins with you pretty much saying, “that’s so me” to a list of symptoms. Other people, including professionals, can verify your behavior, but you’re the only one who knows what’s going on in your head.
The people the author berates, the ones “whoring” out their undiagnosed mental illnesses online to garner attention — we don’t know where they are on their journeys.
I’m sure people do exaggerate their mental health issues online to get attention. People do things for attention all the time. Take selfies, make statuses about their accomplishments, write articles… and sometimes it’s annoying. But to make such a strong statement, to assume everyone who has not yet pursued an “official” mental illness is only talking about mental health for, as the author says, a “like, a share, a comment, or a reblog,” makes people like my past self — who want to share an anxiety article because they relate to it but aren’t ready to make the big leap to ask for help — want to crawl back into our holes where our problems aren’t “big enough,” “important enough” or “official enough” to talk about.
Sound familiar? It’s classic mental health stigma being thrown back into our faces.
Seeing a professional could be a prerequisite for sharing a “relatable” anxiety video in a world where mental health services were cheap and accessible. But that’s not the world we live in. Today you get put on a waiting list. All the professionals in your area are out of your network. Sometimes you see a professional and get the wrong diagnosis anyway. It’s a messy process, and it is not our job to judge how people approach or handle it. If someone is writing or talking about anxiety or depression before they get the chance to see a mental health professional, we shouldn’t discourage them. For all we know, that online support system might be all they have.
The author also claims those with “undiagnosed” mental illnesses make people with “real” mental illnesses seem like fakers. If anything, I think the opposite is true. Embracing my own mental health issues and being active in the community helps me empathize with others who have more severe anxiety than I do. Because I know I can’t control when I’m in a spiral, I know someone whose anxiety is more severe than mine can’t control it either. I get that depression can’t be cured by just going for a walk. I get that people with bipolar disorder aren’t just “moody.” I don’t know exactly what it’s like — but I understand the nature of the beast enough to know it isn’t their fault.
I don’t think we should be giving out mental illness diagnoses like free samples or that people should be using diagnoses incorrectly. For example, I hate when people misuse OCD (“I’m so OCD about my closet.”), but those statements usually come from a place of ignorance. Instead of berating people you think don’t actually have anxiety or depression, we need to educate people about what these conditions are really like. And although the author accuses these people of stealing “resources and support,” I say there isn’t enough resources and support to go around. Instead of demanding people who might have anxiety see a doctor so they can either get a diagnoses or “get over it” — we should be encouraging people to seek help because they need and deserve help. Maybe a few will learn their anxiety or depression is situational or not severe enough to be clinically diagnosed, but that still doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to use services and post about their mental health issues online. There is no suffering competition, and sharing an anxiety video doesn’t take away the severity of what you go through. It’s possible to care and advocate for people with serious mental illnesses while talking about your own mental health issues as a form of self-care. One does not cancel out the other.
It’s easy to hate something because it’s “popular.” I get it. I roll my eyes every time an article is written about a celebrity mentioning the word “anxiety,” thinking really? Do you really have anxiety? But at the end of the day, it isn’t my place to judge. I’d rather mental health be “trendy” or “basic” if it means people aren’t struggling alone. There’s so much mental health content being produced right now. We may even get saturated with it. But don’t demand people don’t share it — ask for a more accurate representation of mental illnesses. Don’t claim people are stealing your services — demand services should be available for anyone who needs them. Because if the end goal is that mental health is treated just like physical health, we want people getting mental health checkups like they go to the dentist. We want mental health support available for people who have a whole range of issues. We want people to have such a great understanding of what mental illnesses are that it becomes universally unacceptable how many people with severe mental illnesses aren’t getting the support they need.
It doesn’t end with writing a silly blog post or sharing a video about anxiety. I know that. But it can start there. And I know personally if I hadn’t been so afraid to identify with an article about anxiety, I might have reached out to my friends sooner. I might have gotten help sooner. And I don’t want to live in a world where that’s a bad thing.