4 Misconceptions I Believed About Mental Illness Before I Was Diagnosed Myself
Before I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I believed some seriously false assumptions about mental illness. It wasn’t until my personal experiences didn’t match what I thought I knew about mental illness that I realized I was wrong about so much. Here are just a few things I used to believe, and what I’ve discovered.
1. You can pick out depressed people easily because they wear black and seem sad or angry all the time.
Yes, my naïve self actually believed this at one point. Wrong. Mental illness is not a style or a fashion trend. I wear whatever I want, or more often, I fling on the first thing I see in my closet when I finally gather enough motivation to get out of bed in the morning. More importantly, with any extra motivation, I usually put on makeup to hide my tired, weary eyes. You can bet I don’t mention my negative feelings. In fact, I’ve been told my “joy is contagious” and my “smile lights up the room,” even when my depression is at its worst. You might be surprised to know the people who smile the biggest and seem the most enthusiastic are sometimes the ones struggling the most. I felt so full of shame as soon as I was diagnosed with mental illness and I had no desire to admit I was really struggling. When I did find myself in the middle of conversations regarding depression or anxiety, they were often full of non-helpful statements, assumptions and misunderstandings. So I plastered on my fake smile and acted super fun and optimistic. I think many people dealing with mental illness become well-versed in putting on masks and acting the opposite of how we feel. It can be extremely difficult to know how someone is feeling emotionally and mentally, and I was wrong to assume the outer appearance of a person is a reflection of what’s going on inside.
2. Mental illness only affects people with serious issues in their environment.
While environmental factors can play a role in mental illness, there are so many other factors that have an effect too. When I was diagnosed, there was nothing going on in my life that would “cause” me to become depressed. In fact, depression came as a kind of imposing dark cloud to an otherwise sunny life. Main point here: depression (or other mental illness) can affect anyone — even those with “great” lives. It doesn’t pick and choose based on specific circumstances.
3. People with depression are lazy and need to just try harder to feel better.
I couldn’t even write this one without cringing, because I now realize how incredibly inaccurate that statement is. Every time someone asks, “you’re not just lazy?” or says, “try doing ___ and you’ll feel better,” I have to work so hard not to completely lose it. I am not a lazy person. I am not a weak person. I am trying. If you are struggling, you are not a lazy person or a weak person. I work every day to fight these feelings of worthlessness, the force tugging me back into bed and the serious lack of motivation. It takes extra effort to get through a day with what feel like shackles on my ankles and a black cloud above my head. And yes, there are some days the fight is too hard. But I guarantee my inability to move is not from lack of trying.
4. Medicine makes people with depression feel better.
I guess this all depends on your interpretation of the word “better.” For me, in the beginning, “better” meant “like depression never existed.” First off, everyone treats their mental illness in different ways, and only some people with depression take medicine. I also realized after I personally started taking medication that it does not provide instant relief, and it’s definitely not a miracle that takes away my depressive symptoms and makes it like they never existed. In addition, different medications have different effects on different people and they can be super helpful, terribly harmful or do absolutely nothing. I found some medication just took away all emotion and made me feel numb, some made me feel a little better (in this case “better” meaning more optimistic and motivated), others had terrible physical side effects and some did absolutely nothing at all.
Sometimes I get so angry when I meet people who are so clueless about mental illness, people who consistently say the wrong things and make hurtful false assumptions. Then I remember the things I believed about mental illness before it entered my own life. I’m realizing I need to try to accept others where they’re at and hopefully give them some insight on what I’ve learned thorough my experience.
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Thinkstock photo via kimberrywood.