“At least it’s not cancer” is something frustrating I’ve always heard as a chronically ill person, but something I hear even more is some variation of “you wouldn’t tell a person with cancer to get over it…” or “you wouldn’t tell a person with glasses to just see better…” while directly saying or implying that mental illness is stigmatized much more than physical illness. And after a lifetime of both severe physical and mental health issues, I *despise* this rhetoric with every bone in my body.
I’ve talked about this at times in the last 15+ years of chronic illness since my first official autoimmune disease diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, but I’ve barely written about it because it feels controversial, or like speaking poorly on something people are doing to try to mean well. I never want to push back on a seemingly good thing, but I have to say something, if only just once to get it out of my system.
DISCLAIMER: This is coming only from my lived experience in the US health system, and is not a reflection of the entire chronic illness community or any other chronically ill individual.
My potentially controversial opinion is that chronic mental health issues and chronic physical health conditions receive almost exactly the same lack of understanding from the general public and from healthcare providers. Furthermore, this lack of understanding for each others’ communities creates divisiveness in the world of speaking out about *any* chronic illness in the first place. It gives an US vs. THEM mentality to folks of varying health conditions that could find common ground in each other. If we both seek to understand each other, or you are like me and experience life in both medical spheres, this kind of rhetoric does absolutely 0% to help either efforts to educate the general public about mental illness & physical illness. There is a lot to be understood in the mental illness and chronic illness world and how they overlap / how comorbities exist more often than not.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to defy medical barriers and get proper diagnoses in the first place, you will find that the specialists that work on your various health issues will not communicate with each other. This leaves the responsibility and advocacy on you, which is a heavy burden to carry when you’re struggling with a dwindling quality of life.
For example, I am bipolar. In a 3 week stay at a mental health facility, they did not allow me to be transferred to a different medical facility to get my bi-monthly intravenous infusions that keep my autoimmune problems under control, which led to a flare up of my physical conditions that worsened my treatment in both areas. Because of that, I am terrified of ever going to a mental health facility again (aside from the already terrifying aspects of mental health care in the US.)
For another example, my diagnosis of serious mental health issues is a huge barrier to the diagnosis and treatment of my physical health issues due to that stigma. I have been medically gaslit from so many providers and told so many times that very real things are “all in my head” that I have a near panic attack every time I see a new specialist because it’s more likely to end in heartache than it is to end in feeling validated and listened to. I’ve found compassionate doctors sometimes, but it is a long road to find them.
I have a medical binder I carry to all appointments with all of my diagnoses, my medical documents from all providers, my lab work and biopsy results, etc. Then I write down all my symptoms relevant to the specialist I’m seeing so I don’t panic and forget my thoughts once I get there. Medical barriers are endless, so I will provide all evidence I have just to be taken seriously for any amount of time a doctor will listen.
Chronic mental illness and chronic physical illness can absolutely be equally debilitating, but pitting them against each other is NOT the answer we should be looking for. They are so deeply intertwined that I could not imagine my life without either. And more importantly our treatment by the general public and medical providers alike need a more nuanced and balanced view of human health.
Like I said, I just had to get this out of my system at least once in my life. If you read this, thank you for letting me ramble. This does not even begin to dissect the issue of mental and physical health and the need for comprehensive treatment. This does not touch on the additional barriers at the intersections of race / class / sexuality that exist.
It’s just a few of my thoughts so that people understand that theoretical comparisons of physical vs. mental illness don’t have any real life truth for me. Comparing my situation to cancer, or another illness of any kind, has not yielded any help or strengthened my worldview. If we can bridge the gaps in education of medical understanding to people of any kind at any capacity, even just extending your empathy for the things you may never have to understand, I’ll call that a win for everyone.
#MentalHealth #ChronicIllness #AutoimmuneDisease #CrohnsDisease #InflammatoryBowelDiseaseIBD #Fibromyalgia #PTSD #BipolarDisorder #OtherMentalHealth