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Why Getting Help for a Mental Illness Is Easier Said Than Done

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

During my junior year of college, I made the hardest call of my life. I typed the phone number several times over before tapping that little green icon, suppressing any ounce of pride I had left. I skirted around my apartment one more time, triple-checking that my roommates were not home. They could not overhear this conversation, even though I’m sure they already knew everything was not OK. They couldn’t be that blind.

I hung up before anyone could answer. My phone screen faded and then flipped sharply to black. I thought about calling back, but what would I even say? I think I’m depressed? I can’t do this anymore? Or, worst of all, I think I need help?

After five minutes of inaction, I stumbled into the bathroom to shower, hoping the solitude of the scalding water would somehow fix everything. Instead, I just ended up standing in front of the mirror wondering how much pressure it would take for my shaving razor to slice my jugular.

That wasn’t the first time I’d thought about such a thing. I deliberately wore all black when walking around campus at night, fantasizing about leaping off the curb at just the right moment. It’d be an accident, something my family could eventually get over. Or maybe I’d just crash on my way back from winter break. There were plenty of cliffs to topple over, a perfectly legitimate way for an inexperienced college student to disappear.

Some of my best friends have struggled with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. I have repeated the classic supportive phrases. I told them: They were worth something. Their problems mattered. It would all get better. I loved them. It would devastate their family and they needed to get help. The whole spiel.

At 21, though, these phrases became hollow. I couldn’t imagine anyone repeating them back to me. They were worse than unhelpful. They were irrelevant. They just reminded me of how naive I’d been. I wasn’t worth anything. My problems were so insignificant compared to others. It would never get better. It didn’t matter how much anyone loved me. They were delusional, but I did not need help.

“I am not weak,” I remember thinking, staring at my bedroom ceiling, my chest as hollow as those meaningless phrases I used to spout.

I could not bear the idea of anyone knowing I needed help. Even worse, admitting to myself I was not strong enough to handle it. Somehow, I did manage to make an appointment at my university’s counseling center. I saw judgment in the receptionist’s face, even though it wasn’t there. I lied about my appointments to my friends, saying I had various extracurricular meetings. I deliberately scheduled my sessions for the quietest times on campus, so I’d be less likely to be seen. Eventually, I completely stopped going, unable to deal with the shame.

Millions of adults experience depression every year, but I would never consider them weak. My own classmates and friends struggled with mental illness, but I would never berate them for seeking help. Indeed, I encouraged it. Yet, somehow, when it was me, the bar was so much higher. The self-stigma was suffocating.

There has always been ignominy when it comes to mental illnesses. We cannot see what is wrong, so we don’t take it as seriously. There is a perception that people need to just get over it through sheer willpower, when that is, simply put, completely impossible. The stigma against mental health issues is continually damaging, and not only does it promote discrimination from the community, but it fosters internal denial and loathing.

People not only avoid treatment because of fear of reprisals. They deny treatment because they believe the false messages: People with schizophrenia are forever unstable. People with bipolar disorder are crazy. Depression means you’re weak.

Self-stigma is more difficult to overcome because you have to convince yourself you’re wrong. This might sound easy, but it’s not because you’re your own worst enemy. It’s impossible to remain objective. You have a quick counter-argument for every point in your favor. You fight against a lifetime of preconceived notions and stereotypes, but you don’t have the luxury of walking away. You cannot dismiss yourself. You believe the stigma so dearly that you don’t go get treatment.

Self-stigma is dangerous. So much so that we reach for a bottle, self-medicating our self-stigma because we don’t know any better. So much so that a 21-year-old girl, whose sneakers skirt too close to traffic on icy nights, whose sheets are a twisted mess of silence, sobs and shame all at once, whose dull razor is nowhere near sharp enough to end it all, holds it against her neck anyway. Yet, she does not need help. In this way, self-stigma is dangerous. It shames. It distorts. It kills. 

It kills.

So what do we do about it? How can we help others’ struggle against themselves? We can help eliminate the stigma by going public with our own experiences. We can speak up when mental illness comes up in conversation. We can eliminate stigma from the source before it takes root in the mind.

We can’t have self-stigma without stigma to begin with. However, it’s not just the perception of mental illness that we have to deal with. That is certainly a problem, but where many take issue is seeking treatment.

As much as we all say it’s OK to ask for help, the truth is we glorify self-reliance. Characters on television who stitch themselves up are “badass,” there is a D.I.Y. version of everything and Americans still romanticize pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. This is the narrative we need to change if we want to see a real reduction in self-stigma, but it is also deeply embedded in American culture.

This article came very close to being about “my friend,” “my coworker” or anyone else besides me. However, it’s much easier to type digital words than speak audible ones. So let’s take advantage of that. Online communities, while frequently accused of distracting us from the real world, can be an invaluable resource. They can allow us to connect with another human being when we cannot yet bring ourselves to connect with those we love most.

Maybe, gradually, we can begin to tear down the predispositions that lead to self-stigma. We can show people it’s OK to ask for help, even if it’s from a stranger, an online forum or even if we can’t even begin to explain why without feeling insignificant and worthless.

These are small steps that can lead to something much larger. We can see others seeking help for their struggles, which aren’t that different from our own. We can realize leaning on others does not diminish our own worth. We can make the first step, and tell a friend we’re not doing OK, everything isn’t fine, we are drowning and we need someone to pull us up.

We can all be that strong.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Originally published: October 19, 2016
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