The 'Not Sick Enough' Stigma

People in the mental health community continuously have to fight against the harmful stigmas pushed upon them by society. Most often, the stigmas have to do with trivializing mental health issues. This can look like making mental illnesses out to be not a big deal at all and sometimes even joking about them. This type of stigma can cause people with mental illness to have chronic feelings of shame, guilt and inadequacy.

On their own, these feelings have the power to interrupt recovery and harm a person’s mental health. There is one particular aspect that fits in with this trivializing category of stigma: the “not sick enough” stigma that targets people who are “high-functioning” and have mental illnesses. Personally, this particular stigma affects me on nearly an everyday basis. I have been diagnosed with more than one mental illness, but I’m still relatively high-functioning. I still am able to sustain a life that appears to be somewhat “normal” to a degree. People assume because I’m not currently in a mental hospital or attempting suicide, I must be A-OK.

This means I am “sick,” but not “sick enough” in the eyes of others. This system of comparing one person’s trauma or mental health to another person’s is toxic. Who is to judge one person with mental illness against another and say who has it worse? How sick does a person have to be to gain sympathy and understanding? Must we all be on the verge of suicide to be sick enough for society to validate our mental illnesses?

I get great grades and my test scores are outstanding, but I abruptly left traditional high school to start going to school 100 percent online. I look healthy to a stranger passing me on the street, but I’ve lost 30 pounds within one year and have both chronic physical and mental illnesses you can’t always visibly see. I am able to leave my house, but I’m uncomfortable nearly every time I do so.

I am deeply involved in my passions, but I haven’t been able to hold a paying job yet. I have accomplished so much in my life, and I guess this makes it hard for others to believe I’m at risk for sudden cardiac arrest and most days I’m scared to talk on the phone.

I’ve had anxiety all my life. People mistook my nervous antics for excitement when I was younger because I suppose the idea that a bright, little girl could have crippling anxiety was just silly. It took years for someone to recognize self-harm symptoms and months to get in with a good psychologist. Is this really what it means to be high-functioning? Sometimes people look at me with a puzzled look when they find out I’m sick. Often, they think I must be faking it because I seem so “not mentally ill.”

Some people think those with mental illness fit into one category. They must have bad grades and no social life. They must have no hobbies or passions. They must be goth or awkwardly shy. They must be violent or isolate themselves. They must always be crying and can’t have a love life. This is why when the prom queen with the 4.0 GPA dies by suicide, everyone takes it as a surprise because they never suspected a thing. This is why when the attractive and talented superstar athlete quits the team because their anxiety is getting worse, nobody understands them or believes them.

It’s easy for people who ares still functioning to slip through the cracks. These are the people who go without help until it’s almost too late. Counselors, family and friends don’t detect it. They can go years without ever receiving proper professional treatment until they get to the point where finally someone notices their struggle. It really sucks when nobody believes you’re sick until you’re in the hospital. It really sucks when nobody believes you have a mental illness until your psychologist says so.

This practically forces a person to get much worse before they can ever get better. This is extremely dangerous, which is why this stigma needs to end. People are being overlooked because they don’t fit some made up mold of what a person with is. This constant invalidation of something you struggle with on a daily basis is detrimental to your mental health. Making light of someone’s mental health just because they aren’t about to jump off a bridge is exactly what pushes people to get to that point.

It’s time to believe everyone with a mental illness and hear their stories. It’s time to stop forcing people to get so sick and so lost before we help them. It is time to care for all people with mental illness, no matter what “degree” their trauma is.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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