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Why the Secrecy and Skepticism Around Mental Health Is Dangerous

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In the past, whenever I read about mental health issues like depression and anxiety, I simply couldn’t understand or relate in any way. I had never experienced anything of the sort in my life, and I’ll admit I was a little skeptical of just how “bad” these conditions were — and whether some of them were even real illnesses at all.

Not only had I never personally experienced any issues, but nobody in my family had struggled with poor mental health. Neither had any of my friends or peers. There wasn’t a single person I knew of who had experienced any form of mental illness whatsoever. That’s what I thought, anyway.

But, in actuality, I knew a lot of people struggling — they had just kept it quiet.

It actually took for me to develop depression and anxiety in my mid-20s, to battle with it for some time and to finally come forward and be open about what I was going through, for people to come to me and say, “Hey, I’ve gone through stuff like this too.”

Family members, friends, acquaintances and even work colleagues came out of the woodwork and got in touch to let me know I wasn’t alone. Some wanted to say they had dealt with and had overcome mental illness, and they were there to talk to me or help if I needed support. Others told me it was something they were currently battling — and they were relieved to know they weren’t alone.

But for a long time, that is just how I felt — alone. I struggled with severe depression on my own for months and months, not even knowing it was depression. I was in denial, and it took things to get very bad for me to admit I had a problem.

This was partly due to my skepticism of mental illness, and partly because I just didn’t know enough about it to accept it might be what was wrong with me. I hadn’t come into contact with depression before; I’d never seen people go through it, and didn’t recognize it was what it was.

Of course, part of the problem is you can’t “see” depression like you might see a physical ailment. It’s not as obvious, and it can develop slowly over time — leading it to creep up on you.

It took me about a year before I began to accept and address my issues, and even longer to build up the courage to begin telling people about it.

But why don’t we want to talk about mental health? Why do we feel we need to keep it to ourselves? And why is this a problem?

For me, there were hundreds of reasons to keep my troubles quiet.

When I first began feeling depressed — even when I knew something was very wrong with me — I often disparaged and wrote off my struggles. I told myself I was just “making a big deal,” and I shouldn’t tell anyone about how I was feeling because it would seem like I was moaning about my life. And of course, “many people had it worse than me.” I kept telling myself, “you’re lucky! Be happy!”

I didn’t want to tell my close friends I was finding life difficult because we hadn’t really ever before spoken about deep personal issues like that with each other. I found it embarrassing and impossible to bring up in conversation. I also didn’t want to shine a spotlight on myself, and seem like I wanted attention or sympathy.

I couldn’t dream of telling my employers I was struggling and it was affecting my performance; I didn’t want them to think I was incapable, that I was weak. I thought it was absurd that my feelings should interfere with my work. I thought I should be able to put my emotions to one side and get on with it.

Even opening up to my family seemed impossible — like me, they had all been skeptical about mental illness — and I thought they wouldn’t believe me, or they’d just tell me to “man up.”

In the end, the only person I felt I could turn to was my doctor — who I felt wouldn’t judge me, and whose objective and fact-driven scrutiny I hoped might explain why I was feeling this way.

It took a long time before I finally went to the doctor and had it officially diagnosed. But by that point, it had damaged relationships with good friends, taken away my interests and “joie de vivre,” and shattered my confidence and self-esteem. My performance at work had nosedived too, and I felt there was no option but to leave my job.

Depression had really taken its hold over me, and it has permanently changed my life.

It is a problem we don’t talk about it. We feel ashamed of this illness and we find it hard to let other people know what we’re going through. But because we hide the illness, many people don’t actually realize how common mental illness is. And they don’t always know when they’re going through it until things get really bad and noticeable.

It seems to me that, if there wasn’t such a stigma around mental health, if it wasn’t such a taboo subject, if it wasn’t surrounded in secrecy and embarrassment, if it didn’t have the potential to endanger employment — we’d talk about it as openly and as seriously as we might a physical ailment. And perhaps when we first began to exhibit signs of mental illness, we might get professional help before it takes a true hold on a person.

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Unsplash photo via I’m Priscilla

Originally published: May 5, 2017
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