When People Don't Take Your Mental Illness Seriously Because You're Overweight
“No one gets approved for mental health.”
The day my caseworker at the local mental health association said those words to me, a wave of acceptance and anger washed over me. I’ve had major depression and social anxiety almost my entire life. A little over a year ago, I decided I had to reach out and get help. Those with their own mental health struggles know how difficult finding help can be. I went to treatment programs, started taking medication and connected with community organizations to help me navigate my journey to wellness. After months of my caseworker trying to convince me to apply for disability benefits, I agreed.
I asked about the process, what I needed from my doctor and what information about my treatment was relevant. She started to list the things I needed and I realized they were physical tests, weight measurements and nutritional allowances. When I reminded her that my disability was a mental illness, that’s when she said it, “No one gets approved for mental health.” She had this look on her face, like something was funny. My body went cold and then hot. I realized what she was saying. My mental health isn’t disabling, my body is.
I am considered overweight and have been fighting to dispel the myth that a larger body size is a disability. Often times, I’ll go through a checklist in my brain of all the ways my weight could be a disability, but the truth is, I rarely check anything off. Sometimes, I actually go through this list to justify my body and my life. I list all of the possible complications of obesity that I don’t have and talk about my activity level or the food I eat. Even so, people don’t care. My actual health doesn’t matter; their perception of my health based on my size does.
“I’m not disabled because of my body, I am disabled because of my mental illness.”
I argued over and over with my caseworker. It didn’t matter. At every subsequent meeting, my physical disability became more and more grave. She told me if I was approved for disability benefits, I could get a special food allowance so I could go on a diet. I could also get approved for weight loss surgery and the drug benefits would cover weight loss drugs. Eventually, I began to tune her out during our appointments while I would cry and rage about it on my own. I kept trying to work up the courage to get a new worker and complain, but I couldn’t get her words or her attitude out of my head. She’s not the only one who has spoken to me like this and made these assumptions about my body. She’s not the first person to look at me and think everything I eat is deep-fried and rolled in sugar. She’s not the first person to look at me and assume I have a whole host of physical illnesses and conditions because of my weight.
I’ve had doctors prescribe diet pills, restrictive diets and surgery. One doctor even told me, “Just stop eating pasta.” None of them asked me what I ate, what my actual activity level or if I liked to exercise. No one saw that my angst over being “fat” was worth counseling or therapy. No one asked me if I felt my weight was a problem.
“No one gets approved for mental health.”
I ignored my caseworker’s warning. I refused to concede. I refused to lie to fit her vision of my health. I refused to falsify a disability claim to get financial support. Instead, my doctor and I filled out my paperwork and focused on my mental health. We focused on the number of times a week I can’t even get out of bed because of my depression. We talked about the hours I spend oversleeping or fighting insomnia, my numerous anxiety attacks and suicidal episodes, and all of the medications I’ve tried since I started treatment. I mentioned all of the jobs I’ve been fired from or left as a result of my mental health, the friends I’ve lost, the six years of love and sexual intimacy I’ve denied myself out of fear, the years I spent self-medicating with alcohol and my strained relationship with my family. I wrote seven pages about my illness, and my weight/physical health only took up a paragraph.
My caseworker was disappointed and frustrated. She told me it would never get approved. She noted all of my obvious impairments that my doctor neglected to mention, like that there was no way I could walk three blocks without having to stop. My face burned hot with shame. Shame about her assumptions and shame about my passive aggressive attempt at garnering her respect. I left her office for the last time and walked straight home where I fell into a depressive state. I had to fight myself just to stay alive.
I’m getting a new caseworker now. No, I didn’t eventually find the strength to request a change, as I wish I had. I got lucky.
Here’s the lesson in this story: I don’t deserve to be treated like this, and neither do you. The people who are there to help us with our health and well-being don’t have the right to pass these judgments and impair our ability to get well. It’s OK to say no, it’s OK to get a new worker or doctor, it’s OK to try to find a therapist or counselor who aligns more with your own views of yourself and your illness if you feel like they’re hurting your recovery. It’s also OK to be overweight. It’s not OK for you to be judged, mistreated or denied help because of your body.
I don’t know if anyone gets approved for mental health reasons. I’m still waiting to find out, but I’m hopeful that my honesty and candor about my depression and anxiety will reach an understanding ear, and that I’ll get the help I need to make myself healthy.
GettyImages via Zinkevych