When Articles About Mental Illness Invalidate the Experience of Others
It makes me so happy to see that mental health is becoming less taboo, if only in my own social circles and social media groups. I see several posts a day linking to articles about depression, anxiety, addiction and general mental health topics. However, an alarming trend that I’ve noticed is the number of postings that give off the idea that a given mental health condition must be experienced in a particular way. Titles like, “20 Struggles All Anxious People Understand” and “You’re Not Depressed, You’re Just Really Sad,” are exclusive and invalidating. They perpetuate the isolation that comes about with mental illness.
I remember being in high school and college, and feeling like I was alone in my mental health struggles. I could not imagine that anyone could possibly understand what I was going through. Some people in my circles had admitted to feeling depressed when we were in college, or told me they recovered from an eating disorder. However, I was judging their symptoms based on what I could see and how it compared to my experience. I didn’t quite understand at that time that not all scars are visible, not every illness requires a medical leave, hospitalization or specialized treatment, people can be depressed without trying to hurt themselves and most importantly, a smiling face does not equal mental health. I look through my current Facebook feed and see posts from my college friend about her bipolar disorder, my high school acquaintance about her anxiety and my friend’s sister about her eating disorder. I see so many posts like these, and I can hardly believe that I ever felt alone.
It seems to me that continuing to feel alone is a trap that we set for ourselves. We come up with narrow definitions of “depression” and other mental illnesses, so narrow that we ourselves are often the only person who can fit into the box. It’s understandably isolating. No two people experience mental illness in the same way, however that doesn’t mean that one person’s experience is legitimate while another’s is not. My story is not like your story, and yours is not like anyone else’s. The piece we must focus on, though, is the common experience. The specifics of our struggles can vary widely, but there is a common experience of shame, self-loathing, isolation and loss of control, among others, that transcends specific symptoms and diagnostic categories.
We are less alone than we realize, but when we invalidate others’ experiences, in our own heads or out loud, we build walls around ourselves that make it harder to connect with anyone. Mental illness can be painful, awful and disempowering. It’s hard to challenge your cognitive processes when feeling unwell. Ultimately, though, much healing comes through sharing our stories with our peers, realizing our common ground and practicing non-judgment towards ourselves and others.
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