How I Can Help End the Mental Health Stigma (Even a Little) as a 17-Year-Old

So, to begin with, some background knowledge: I have recently admitted to myself, my friends and my family that I am not well. After three years of struggling along in complete isolation, I have finally admitted I can’t fix this by myself, no matter how hard I try.

(I should also say that I neither want nor need any pity, this is about helping others who feel completely alone to find some hope that they can recover, that they don’t have to feel like this forever.)

I have finally realized that when it feels like a hummingbird is trying to force its way out of my chest and I’m shaking from head to toe and I can barely breathe and I feel detached from my own body for no apparent reason… that’s not “being nervous.” That’s a panic attack, that’s a terrifying (and unfortunately frequent) friend of anxiety. I have finally realized that feeling completely frozen with numbness and not being able to feel anything and at the same time feeling like you’re drowning and feeling so exhausted but not being able to sleep (the list goes on and on and on)… that’s not sadness or something that can be blamed on “hormones.” That’s my depression.

I don’t know why I dismissed all these clearly distressing and life-disrupting signs for three years as something I could just “get over”… well, actually, that’s not quite true. I do know why. It’s the same reason so many others have never spoken out about their mental health issues. It’s the stigma. The terrible, ever-present stigma that forces so many to remain silent; and until this stigma is gone, we are never going to be able to say we are fully accepting of mental health disorders and want to help those who struggle and fight every single second of every single day to get better.

That’s the wake up call I had today as I was sitting in a waiting room waiting to see my psychologist to discuss my plan of action for treatment. There were three others in the room besides myself, and we were all in separate corners of the room. As each person entered, everyone else looked quickly away, no one was making eye contact, no one was smiling at each other, no one was acknowledging in any way that there were other people in the room. Now, initially, this doesn’t seem too odd, right? I mean, sure, we weren’t talking, but we didn’t know each other so why should we? Why should we acknowledge each other at all? I agree, there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary at the time, except for one  important detail: we were all waiting to see mental health professionals. We had all admitted (at least to ourselves) that we had a problem (or problems) that we couldn’t fix on our own, that required professional help. Still, I was too ashamed to admit to people who were there for similar reasons as me, that I am mentally ill. Even in the waiting room of a mental health service center, I felt a stigma. And that has got to stop.

I know I can’t stop the stigma alone. I’m a 17-year-old from a small island few have heard of. In the grand scheme of things, I really don’t stand a chance at making any monumental change to the way we view mental illnesses, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. If I’ve managed to convince just one person reading this to tell someone they trust they’re going through hell and they need help, then I have succeeded.

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Thinkstock photo by maxim4e4ek

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