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When You're 'Too Functional' to Have Your Mental Illness Taken Seriously

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I’ve read countless articles, many on The Mighty, about the struggle of having an invisible illness and the way other people judge the “validity” of people’s conditions. I’ve also read about people who aren’t taken seriously when they express their most intimate, dark thoughts to family, professionals and friends.

I’m a psychologist. Not too long ago I was reunited with many other mental health workers (psychologists, psychiatrists, researchers and professors were in attendance.) The event was a presentation of a type of therapy and when the speaker began talking, he asked us how mental illness affects a person. Someone answered a person with a mental illness has difficulties and struggles with certain areas of his life. Another person answered that the mentally ill suffer greatly. And then a third person said mentally ill people don’t function in society. I was waiting for someone to refute this, but instead everyone nodded and the speaker actually agreed and said “very good.”

My heart was beating really fast. It was partly because I didn’t know these people very well and I was struggling a bit with social anxiety. I hadn’t contemplated speaking up. But my heart was also beating fast because I was angry. That statement and the fact it wasn’t even questioned is exactly the reason why “high-functioning” people with mental illnesses are sometimes not taken seriously.

I can be dying inside while going through the motions of the day. It’s not difficult for me to know how others expect me to act. Acting fine is a cognitive process. You can probably mention right now how an emotionally stable or “mentally sane” person is supposed to act. It really is simple. A generally accepted lifestyle is one where a person wakes up every day, looks presentable, takes care of stuff that needs to be taken care of, eats and goes to sleep. This can sometimes be done regardless of how you feel inside. To say it’s difficult is an understatement, but it’s not impossible.

These “high-functioning” people don’t do it because they want to fool others, they do it because they want to produce and be a part of society. They try so hard to beat their illnesses or disorders. They don’t want to rely on others to take care of them.

So when a “high-functioning” person asks for help or admits to himself and to someone else his struggles, it takes a lot of bravery. These people have worked every single day to build a “normal” world for themselves are terrified of admitting mental illness, and when they finally do and are met with rejection, little understanding and no empathy from a mental health worker, it is devastating.

My compromise with my career is very clear to me, but I have to admit I have been blessed (and cursed) to see this because I, myself, struggle with my own disorders.
If you struggle with not being taken seriously, my advice to you is to trust you know yourself so much more than anybody else. Nobody has the right to undermine your difficulties. If they do, it’s their issue. Keep looking for the person who listens to you and takes your feelings into account. Don’t feel demoralized or flawed. I know it’s a tough pill to swallow when you ask for help from a mental health worker who should be able to understand you but doesn’t. Again, this is a flaw in their own understanding of the human mind.

By the way, yes I did speak up. With a bit of a red face I refuted what they all agreed to and told them it’s a terrible mistake to discard the presence of a mental disorder in relation to the functionality of a person. I added functionality is sometimes a symptom, depending on the illness and the person.

The speaker didn’t know what to answer, so he agreed and moved on.

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When You're 'Too Functional' to Have Your Mental Illness Taken Seriously
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How We Treat the Scars We Cannot See

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A year ago, a nurse wheeled me down a long hallway toward Jamie after my total thyroidectomy. He sat with me for a bit before my parents came down to check on me. They stood at my bedside smiling and doing most of the talking. I was a bit groggy as I looked at them and whispered, “How big is it?” I knew I shouldn’t really care about my incision, but there was a part of me that did.

My dad moved his pointer finger up to his neck and traced an invisible line as he explained, “It goes from one side of you neck all the way over to the other side.”

What? Across my entire neck? I had thought the damage would be so much smaller.

My mom nudged my dad and gave him the marital death stare. I knew the words she was speaking with her glance. “Pete, come on! Can’t you tone it down a little bit? You don’t have to be completely honest right now.”

Today, one year later, this cut that went from one side of my neck all the way to the other side is barely noticeable. It is a thin white line that has faded over the passing of 365 days.

This scar I carry with me often reminds me of fear and bravery, uncertainty and grace, hardship and love.

It is a physical symbol of the struggle I went through last year. But not all scars are so visible. Quite often, they remain unseen, hidden away far below the surface. I’ve decided these are the hardest scars to carry.

Long before my cancer scare, I was sick and I didn’t even know it. I suspect that sometime after Parker was born, I started a long slow fall into depression. The signs were all there, but I missed every single one of them. I was exhausted. I wasn’t running. I was perpetually irritable and overwhelmed. Mostly, I was numb. I tried to explain things away. Motherhood is just hard, I told myself. This will all get easier. I just need to try harder. I just need to keep looking the part. Keep mothering. Keep pushing on. Keep making dinner. Keep smiling. I became an actress by day as I went through the motions of all I thought I should be doing.

Days and weeks and months and years got harder and harder. I was completely overwhelmed with the demands of my life. I wondered how on earth people got it all done. I napped with the kids nearly every day because exhaustion was a constant companion. I withdrew from the people I love. I was wrought with the guilt of falling short over and over again and began to harness a growing resentment toward the people I love most.

I was working so incredibly hard to survive, to make it through each passing day. It felt like I had to give twice the effort to accomplish merely half of a task. I could sense that I was a shell of my old self, but I couldn’t make sense of what I was feeling. Where was the person I used to be? I wrote her off as having disappeared after the kids were born. Apparently, she had the good sense to get out of town and escape the mayhem that surrounded me.

It turns out, the old “me” was in there all along. She was waiting patiently for the numbness to fall away, for me to walk back into the light.

This summer, I got lucky and stumbled my way out of the darkness.

It was an ordinary Saturday morning. We had plans to meet an old family friend at Barnes and Noble, and so Jamie and I worked through the process of getting clean clothes on everyone so we could look mostly civilized when we arrived.

As my feet trod down the stairs, I glanced at the clock and realized we were all ready to go and it was quite early in the day. The sun was shining and blue skies shown through our finger smudged windows. Parker sat in front of the storm door with his right leg bent before him as he worked to fit his small foot into the correct shoe. I felt something odd stir within me. It rose up in my chest. It was light. It was something I had not felt in a very very long time. It was the faintest seed of joy.

Joy!

“Maybe I’m getting better,” I thought to myself. “Maybe everything is going to be OK.”

I turned the corner at the bottom of the stairs and walked back into the kitchen. I opened the cabinet and pulled out the medication I’d been prescribed four weeks earlier as I sat before a doctor sharing details  I’d hoped to spare everyone.

My palm pushed down on the white top and twisted the cap off. One small pill fell down into my palm. I grabbed a small water glass and took an antidepressant. It was the first time I didn’t second guess my decision to do so.

I carried a small hope around with me for an entire day. Maybe I’m getting better. Maybe joy would find me again.

It was the beginning of my return to life.

At first I felt intense relief that I would not have to live that way any longer. I was free from the cage that had held me. Thankfulness washed over me as I reclaimed myself. But then the shame and regret set in. I had missed years of my kids’ lives. Everything I should have felt when Parker was a baby, I had missed. Even though I’d been there physically, I was numb through it all. The memories felt tainted by my depression, by my irritation, by my anxiety. A wave of guilt swelled around me as I thought about how this has affected my boys and my husband. It was enough to make me cry for a long time.

There is a saying that happiness is a choice. I used to believe these words. Now I know it’s not always as simple as that. Sometimes the wall is too high, the hole is too dark. Sometimes we just can’t find our way out.

I am learning to make peace with what happened. I can beat myself up over the past, over something I cannot change, or I can start living today.

But making peace is some hard, heavy work. As I started that process, it occurred to me that while I’ve never once been ashamed of my thyroid cancer diagnosis, there is a sense of shame I feel at having had depression. It taunts me at times, whispering, “Your life is beautiful. What reason could you possibly have to be depressed?”

I’m a girl who likes answers, and it unnerves me that I have no reasonable explanation. My mind walks through postpartum, through a move, through motherhood, through thyroid cancer and knows one or all of these reasons are enough. But that doesn’t satisfy shame’s torment.

So I find myself back in familiar territory, typing steadily away at my keyboard. It’s a place that helps me make sense of the senseless, a place I find hope in my heartache. My fingers dance together, bringing a story I have tucked deep within me out into the crisp fall air. I remember the heaviness I carried for so long, the way I struggled to get through the day, the relief I felt when plans fell through because I wouldn’t have to put energy into pretending to be OK. Depression stole a few years of my life, but it didn’t steal them all. I am fortunate to have found joy again, to have found myself.

I am alive once again.

For me, this past December was about finding and sharing joy. Our little family watched the twinkling lights scattered though trees and outlining homes as we drove through town on dark, blustery nights. We roamed the fields at Joe’s Tree Farm with red cheeks and runny noses. We inhaled the scent of fresh pine that filled our living room while the boys played game after game of foosball. We drank hot cocoa and built a blazing fire below festive stockings. We savored the joy of gathering together with the people we love. We rejoiced. And this year, I was able to bask in the fullness of the season. Joy wasn’t just around me; it was once again within me.

Our scars, whether visible or not, tell a story. They are little miracles that show our ability to heal after trauma. They are proof of our resilience, proof we have stood in the fires of life and walked onward.

May we remember the perspective we have gained, the lessons we have learned along the way. May we be brave enough to carry each of our scars with unwavering grace.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo by Medioimages/Photodisc

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13 Things to Remember When You’re Having a ‘Down Day’

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When you’re having a down day, here are some things you should remember.

Read the full story.

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Why It's Hard to Be a Mental Health Advocate in India

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Why is it so difficult for people to understand mental illness is real? Why is it such a shock to learn an actual person might be struggling with some form of mental illness, especially in India? I have been pondering on it for a while now.

I’m from India and I have bipolar disorder, major depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), all of which are more than society can accept. I have heard a lot of criticism for the way I am, for the reasons I don’t go out and socialize, for not being who society wants me to be.

There is a general air of ignorance among all “normal” people around me. But it’s not just them. This general air of ignorance also spreads among people who are struggling with mental illness. It is the truth.

Recently, I tried to start a campaign for my cause where people would take selfies, write a hopeful message on it and post it on social media with the hashtag #DontLoseHope. I got the idea from another campaign called #ItsOkayToTalk, which was brilliantly done and spread a lot of suicide awareness among men.

I really hoped people would come together to erase the stigma attached to mental illness in our society by being part of this campaign, but that didn’t happen. I created an event on the page, I posted on Twitter and Instagram. No one came forward to accept the invitation.

I didn’t expect this to happen because there are people who are actually struggling. I thought they would share where there is an ear to listen to them. I was proved wrong.

It’s hard to for people to accept themselves as they are. It is even worse in India, where no matter what’s being said to you, you just silently take in. There is no “team effort” and not a single reason for them to come out and act as a participant in something that might make a difference in the world.

There are people who hold more power than celebrities on Twitter, but I’ve never found anyone who would actually help me spread the word about Hope Is Good. Many people will talk about traffic, the food they are eating, how much sleep they got the night before and outrage about the news. But they won’t talk about stigmatized mental illness.

Is everyone happy who is talking constantly on social media? The people who chirp all day on Twitter, do they go back home, go to sleep and the next day it’s the same as any other day? I know people who are struggling, but they would rather suffer in silence than talk about what’s going on.

I have been trying to get the message across to others for a very long time, but it has hardly worked. It feels like people here are busy faking their good lives rather than accepting the existence of mental illness.

This is the reason it is so hard to spread awareness here where awareness is needed more than anything. I have been trying and I will keep trying, but even in this age, where any news goes viral instantly without much effort, I find myself disappointed with people.

Let’s hope my efforts bring about a change in how this society works. I’ll never stop trying.

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Image via Thinkstock

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Learning How to Help My Teenager With Mental Health Issues

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For months and months, my eldest daughter had tried to tell me how she was feeling: being ready to cry all the time, not wanting to get out of bed, avoiding social situations, refusing to speak or utter any words, unwilling to make physical contact of any kind, having thoughts about harming herself… the list goes on. I watched as she went from the engaging teenager I once knew to being someone I did not recognize in my own home. She tried to tell me on many occasions that she was in extreme pain, and it wasn’t until she had her pediatric appointment that I was told that she really, really needed help. If her arm had been broken, I would waste no time in getting her to a doctor. Why would I waste time now?

My mind reeled.

Firstly, I did not know where to start looking for a mental health professional. Who could or should I trust?

Secondly, I thought there may have been some way to have prevented this. Was it something I did or did not do as a parent?

Thirdly, I immediately thought about what friends and family would say or think. There is a lot of stigma associated with mental illness.

Honestly, it was this point that gave me pause.

I made a promise to my daughter that I would find help and asked that she give me time to locate the services she required. It wasn’t as easy as I thought. Many service providers have lengthy wait times for intake appointments – unless the person is in crisis and in danger of harming themselves – sometimes up to three to six months. Her pain was so evident; I knew I could not wait that long.

Thankfully, I was able to find a clinic relatively close to our home, and she has begun treatment, both counseling and medication therapies.

Admittedly, I began to think there would be a “fix,” a solution that would solve her diagnosis, like an antibiotic for a bacteria. I grew impatient thinking she would return to the smiling and gregarious teenager from before.

Time needs time.

And some days are better than others, but isn’t that the truth for all of us here?

So instead of expecting her to be anything else, I have come to realize, to know she is still my star, my wonderfully beautiful daughter.

As we approach this new year, I am committing myself to these things on her behalf:

1. To look beyond however she is feeling at any given moment and to see only her.

2. To fully and actively listen to her expression of how she feels without making any commentary.

3. To ask what she needs and not assume I know what she needs in that moment.

4. To be her biggest supporter and most staunch advocate no matter what.

5. To be kind to myself when I don’t get it exactly right.

Life is a journey, not a destination, and I am all in.

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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The Link Between Mental Illness and Money

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While I have undergone a lot of intense challenges throughout my life, I still count myself lucky in a number of ways. I have enough food to eat, clothes to wear and a roof over my head. I’m also able to attend university which will in turn help me meet my goals in life. All of this is not due to the fact I am independently wealthy! In truth, my family has been very supportive and has helped me in a number of ways, including financially. However, every single day I walk to class I see people who are not so fortunate. The homeless are basically on every street corner and their numbers seem to grow all the time. I cannot help but wonder how many of them are suffering from poor mental health conditions. In fact, there is a very close correlation between mental health and money. Many people who are experiencing poor mental health do not have the family or peer support they require. In turn, they are forced into a cycle of poverty which seems near possible to escape.

“The biggest enemy of health in the developing world is poverty.” — Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations

The Facts:

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) “mental ill-health and poverty are closely linked and interact in a negative cycle.” If this was not concerning enough, W.H.O. goes on to further point out, “Best evidence indicates that the relationship between mental ill health and poverty is cyclical: poverty increases the risk of mental disorders and having a mental disorder increases the likelihood of descending into poverty.” To exacerbate the situation, governments have done a very poor job of providing any type of income relief for those with mental health concerns. For instance, in Ontario, Canada, individuals experiencing a serious mental illness can receive income support through something called the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). Not only is this program extremely difficult to “qualify” for, the program also has major shortcomings. The rates of this pension are far below what is needed to pay for the necessities of life such as housing, food and clothing. In fact, individuals on ODSP are 34 percent below the poverty line.

What’s the Connection?

Undoubtedly there is a very close connection between mental health and money — or should we say, lack of money. Many may wonder what the actual connection is. In my own personal experience, the following can contribute to the financial burden of those struggling with poor mental health conditions.

1. Stigma and discrimination.

Individuals with mental health conditions experience rampant stigma and discrimination and they have all throughout history.  According to WHO, those with such conditions are subjected to stigma and discrimination on a daily basis and are restricted in their ability to access essential health and social care support. They also face significant barriers receiving an education and thus finding and ultimately keeping meaningful employment.

2. Inability to retain and maintain employment.

As previously noted, stigma and discrimination make it difficult for those who are struggling with poor mental health to find and keep employment. I would take it a step further and note mental illnesses often make it necessary for individuals to miss work. This can be from going through a particularly bad time, side effects of medications or extended hospitalizations. These things are very common for someone who is fighting a mental illness. However, sometimes when the individual goes back to work after this absence, they will find out their job is no longer there. While some employers are getting better at providing accommodations in the workplace, there is still a long way to go. In one of my previous jobs, I was dismissed from my job for making one mistake due to a temporary loss of focus. The employer knew of my condition when I was hired, but made no accommodation for it. This happens frequently to a significant number of individuals with poor mental health and makes securing and retaining employment difficult.

3. Extended hospitalizations.

While hospitalizations not only create problems due to absence from work, they also make it difficult to budget, pay bills and plan for financial commitments. This in turn will land people in a lot of difficulty with landlords, bill collectors and credit agencies. When in the hospital for a mental illness, quite often the last thing on our mind is securing good credit! No, it is all about survival.

4. The illness.

There is little doubt various components of a mental illness make managing money difficult. For instance, I tend to have high and low moods. In the middle of a “high,” I will spend money quite freely with no thought whatsoever to the consequences. Impulsivity takes over. In times of severe lows, if I manage to get out of bed, it is a significant accomplishment. I certainly do not have the capacity to manage my money at such times. Also, if things get so bad to the point where a substitute decision maker is needed, all power over one’s own affairs is lost and they become vulnerable to potential exploitation.

Conclusion

It has been clearly shown how poor mental health can negatively affect the financial position of an individual. Also, people who have support (family and peers) and thus access to resources and funds, tend to have a lower incidence of mental illness and quicker rates of recovery. Of course this is not always the case, but it is a defined data trend. The question then becomes how can we help those people who do not have access to support? How can we help them so they do not end up homeless and on the streets. I would say the first thing we need to do is change the mindset of society. Mental illness is not a choice and those who suffer from it should not be abandoned. All of society has a role to help, be empathetic and make life better for all our brothers and sisters.

Follow this journey on Revolving of Doors.

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