Six of the Most Harmful Mental Health Narratives

TRIGGER WARNING: IN THIS POST I DO DISCUSS TOPICS SUCH AS SUICIDAL IDEATION AND DEPRESSIVE THOUGHTS

Recently, I have seen a lot of dangerous ideas regarding mental health being circulated on social media. I have seen posts which have blamed sufferers for having mental health issues and statuses which have suggested that people with depression are ‘choosing’ not to be happy. People have been insulting anxiety sufferers for being ‘self-centred’ amongst other things. Essentially disrespectful people who lack any understanding of mental health have chosen to spread their harmful narratives of what they believe mental illness to be. I am here to call BS on their idiocy and share why I believe these narratives to be completely false and hopefully spread some education about mental health.

1. ‘Choose happiness’

I appreciate the significance of shifting your perspective and adopting a mental outlook which emphasises gratitude and acknowledgement of positive things in life. However, the phrase ‘choose happiness’ seems to me to be a kick in the teeth for anyone suffering with a mental illness. This phrases is slung around without a care by people who preach that they want to help people achieve better mental health when really all they are doing is invalidating the experience of people who are struggling. If it was so easy as ‘choosing’ happiness then nobody would be depressed! If there was a switch which could be flicked which would allow people to not feel sadness or experience dark thoughts, then people who are suffering with depression or any other mental illness would flick that switch immediately. It as if the people who tell others to ‘choose happiness’ think that people who are suffering are simply wallowing and that recovery from mental illness is as easy making the decision to not be ill anymore. Either way, I have always found the ‘choose happiness’ slogan to be both condescending and insulting whether the people who use the phrase intend it to be or not.

2. Exercise is the ‘cure’

Again, I understand the sentiment and the intention behind this claim when people say it but I maintain that people who think that if someone does exercise then they will never suffer from mental health issues have a fundamental misunderstanding about what mental illnesses are. Exercise can be used as one part of a larger recovery programme or adopted as one element of a healthier lifestyle which can help people with mental health issues but that does not mean that going for a jog everyday will suddenly cure someone. I cannot deny the existence of endorphins but mental illnesses are deeply ingrained in sufferers’ psyches. So, harmful thought patterns, intrusive thoughts and other symptoms of mental illness will not disappear after a zumba class. Also, just because exercise worked wonders for one person, that does not necessarily mean that it will have the same positive effect for someone else; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to recovery. 

3. Choosing medication is a weakness

Every time I see someone pushing this narrative, it makes me so disheartened. I take medication for my mental health issues and let me tell you that the medication people are given are not magical ‘happy pills’. I do not take my medication then suddenly feel on top of the world or cured. Medication is not simply for people who do not try enough on their own to get better. Trust me, I tried every option available to me before I chose to go on medication and the stigma surrounding antidepressants (amongst other drugs) is part of the reason I suffered for so long before accepting medication. Accepting that you need medication in order to help put yourself on a more even keel before then working hard to improve your mental health is actually a strong thing to do. For me, medication serves to give me a basis from which I can work from, it allows me to function at a certain level which then facilitates any other therapy I chose to pursue as well. Medication is not the ‘easy way out’ or a sign of failure.

4. Mental health is an excuse for being lazy

Increasingly, I am seeing people accuse mental health sufferers of simply being lazy and using a medical label to disguise the fact that they cannot be bothered to do certain things. For example, when someone struggling from depression confides that they struggle to get out of bed in the morning or gather the energy to do domestic tasks, people respond saying that this behaviour stems from laziness and that no-one wants to get out of bed in the morning. However, these accusing people miss the point that if they do not get out of bed when they are supposed to, they are doing so because they want to, whereas someone who is depressed is not getting out of bed because they cannot force themselves to however much they wish they could. An inability to do certain things is not a choice for people with mental health issues; their illness dictates to them what they are able to do whilst they desperately fight against it. Some days the illness wins and they have to cancel plans but this does not make them lazy. Try to show some understanding and compassion rather than anger and disrespect.

5. Your case is not serious enough unless you are suicidal

This narrative has stopped so many people from seeking help until their mental health has deteriorated to a drastic point. People fear that doctors will turn them away for wasting their time because the case they present them with is not ‘serious’ enough. Saying that only suicidal people are worth treating makes people doubt the validity of their own feelings and wonder whether they are over-dramaticizing their condition. This self-doubt and shame can in turn have a negative effect on a person’s mental health, leading to a toxic situation where people keep their problems to themselves which can only be detrimental.

6. Mental illness sufferers are selfish

The misconception that people suffering with mental health issues are self-centred has been circulating a lot at the moment. People have been arguing that they are entitled to ditch friends who are suffering because they find them ‘boring’ due to their illness or a ‘drag’ to be around because they are not bubbly and happy all of the time. Again, to me this screams of people who do not exercise enough compassion and who do not make an effort to understand what their friends are going through (which is what a real friend would do). People with mental health issues are not ‘bringing the mood down’ on purpose. To be honest they are showing how strong they are by making the effort to socialise anyway which can be an incredibly draining exercise for people who are struggling.

 

I would love it if we could show some solidarity as a blogging community down in the comments or continue the conversation on twitter. You can find my twitter here and please do not hesitate to contact me if you have been effected by any of these harmful narratives and want some support.

Things Anxiety Has Made Me Do

Anxiety is an often misunderstood mental illness. People think that those who suffer from anxiety are really just shy or timid. As a result, the majority of people do not appreciate the potentially debilitating effects of anxiety and how it can impact so many areas of someone’s life. To try and give an insight into the ways in which anxiety has distorted and manipulated my life experiences, I have compiled a short list of things which my anxiety has made me do:

  1. Violently vomit during an exam.
  2. Forget my own address whilst having to fill-in a form in front of a receptionist.
  3. Run out of shops before retail staff could approach me.
  4. Pretend I haven’t heard someone when really I just could not find the words to respond to their statement or question.
  5. Feign illness to get out of doing class presentations.
  6. Persuade my mum to order for me at cafes so that I do not have to speak out loud myself.
  7. Scream involuntarily when someone has spoken to me unexpectedly due to being so on-edge.
  8. Arrive 30 minutes early for everything in order to avoid the worry and stress of being late.
  9. Avoid going to events due to never having been to that specific location before and not being able to handle the ‘unknown’.
  10. Jump out of a dental x-ray because I felt trapped in the room (much to the anger of the orthodontist).
  11. Forget people’s names no matter how well I know them because of my mind being so scrambled.
  12. Wash my hands repetitively until they are red raw.
  13. Decline invitations to hang-out with my friends until I let them down so regularly that they give-up on me in the end.
  14. Lock myself inside my University room and not speak to anyone for days on end.
  15. Refuse to go to restaurants due to paranoia about the food and whether it will make me feel unwell.

 

Resources which give information about anxiety:

Anxiety and Panic Attacks – Mind, the mental health charity

Generalised anxiety disorder – NHS UK

RECOVERY

QUESTION: is the idea of ‘recovery’ helpful?

I have mixed feelings about recovery. Whether it is a help or a hindrance when so many people present it as an ideal which feels distant and unattainable to people who are in the midst of any type of illness. Sometimes when people reference recovery or being recovered, it just makes me feel more lost and hopeless than I was before. However, other times it can inspire me and give me the courage to keep moving forward with the comfort that others have weathered similar storms.

What is probably most frustrating to me about the idea of recovery is that it is so vague by virtue that it is subjective and hard to pin down in what it means to each of us individually. There is no specific route or journey that will lead you straight to recovery, the same steps and challenges do not work for anyone. Recovery does not look the same for everyone either, leaving me in the strange position of never being entirely certain of what I am aiming or working towards, meaning that my motivation begins to dwindle behind my uncertain mind.

Whenever counsellors or therapists have mentioned recovery to me I have felt myself recoil into my seat. Even the word seems so intimidating and far off in the distance. Also, I find the use of the term frustrating because who has the right or the knowledge to determine exactly what recovery is, what it looks like and what the time period for recovery should be? However much I want there to be a finish line I also do not know who I am without mental illness because I have let my mental health define me for so long. How do I separate myself from the characteristics of my illnesses and how will I know when this process is complete and I have recovered?

This post is a mess of rhetorical questions and abstract thoughts but what I have learnt from it is that I need to narrow down the specifics of what I am striving towards and what progress I will be satisfied with so that I could call myself recovered. Abstract and vague goals only lead to more frustration and motivation leaving me like a deflated balloon.

“I wanted to tell her that I was getting better, because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: It was a hurdle you jumped over, or a battle you won. Illness is a story told in the past tense.” – ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ by John Green

PROGRESS ISN’T STRAIGHT FORWARD

Progress isn’t always linear. There’s not always a finish line in sight. Things that we labour at in life don’t necessarily work-out mathematically, we can’t time ourselves and set concrete targets for when to hit our next milestones. Some things just have to take as long as they take which is probably why the intangible frustrates the human brain so much.

Neither my anxiety nor my depression can be measured. I can’t draw a pencil line on the wall to set my bench mark and then keep drawing lines until I flourish to the point of blooming five feet above my initial line. Wouldn’t that be quaint? Instead the journey with mental illness often seems a lonely and meandering one in which fog fills-up my mind so frequently that I become disorientated and wonder whether I actually have a final destination to keep moving forwards to. My illnesses aren’t visible, so cannot be judged on their reduction of prominence over time. Instead, they are confusing swathes of thoughts and feelings which ebb and flow in how much they cover and suffocate my mind and body. Sometimes it feels like I take two steps forward then three steps back.

Today the pessimistic route presented itself as the easy one to take. Time has felt like sand slipping through my fingers recently and the hum of everyone moving past me, their progress whistling in my ears, only felt louder the more I pushed towards the positive route. Today and writing this blog post reminded me of the importance of having goals and a picture of where you want to be, not just in one or two year’s time, but tomorrow and the day after that. When the possibility of progress seems to be so distantly set in the faraway future, it is difficult to find the motivation to continue onwards on the right path. So, I set myself short-term goals, literally for the next day, like waking-up and telling myself that it will be a good day, getting to my seminar a couple of minutes early, smiling at whoever I sit next to in class, holding the door open for someone or managing to get myself to say even just a couple of words to whoever will be near me in my lecture hall (this is the most ambitious as my words dry-up in my mouth when I am around people). These things may seem silly and inconsequential but I need the reassurance that work can always be done on some aspect of my mental health and the route which will take me looping backwards to my darkest place isn’t the only one available to me.

GROWING OUT OF IT?

I have been told an obscene amount of times that I will ‘grow out of’ my mental health problems.

I find this one of the most annoying common phrases that counsellors, relatives and family friends tend to say to me when they find out about my mental health issues. They try to convince me that as I get older I will leave my depression, anxiety and OCD behind because to them it is obvious that no mature adult could still struggle with such immature issues.

Note to people who say this: you are being incredibly patronising. You are telling someone whose life is consumed by their struggles with mental health that their problems are childish and once they have seen more of the world and gotten older they will simply forget about their immature issues. However much you want to, you cannot dismiss someone else’s valid feelings out of hand because of your own ignorance and lack of understanding, telling someone that what they are going through is essentially just a phrase is extremely demeaning.

Other people have told me “Oh, when I was your age I was shy too but I soon grew out of it”. I appreciate that people who have said this to me were trying to show that they could empathise with me and give me a sense of comfort but it is so frustrating when people think that being shy is the same as suffering from anxiety (social anxiety and generalised anxiety in my case). Equating these two issues and taking them to mean the same thing means that you are dismissing the experience of panic and anxiety attacks, the daily struggle of leaving the house and the constant worry anxious people have to battle about what others think about them, as well as the isolating effect of having trouble travelling on public transport. People who say that having anxiety is essentially just being shy are telling people that they do not believe all of the serious effect which this mental illness can have as well as the incredibly varied experiences people with anxiety have, as it should be remembered that we cannot be all lumped together and told that the way we see and live life is exactly the same.

In essence, I wish people would take anxiety more seriously rather than just dismissing it as a phase to grow out of. How do you think that makes people who are older than my own 18 years of age feel about their own experiences with anxiety? Be sensitive to the overall effects that anxiety can have on our lives rather than just shrinking people who suffer with it to the image of your own slightly quiet self when you started secondary school; it is not the same thing.