TRIGGER WARNING: REFERENCES TO SELF-HARM.
When I was 15, I was told by a family member that I was ‘over-sensitive’ because I had completely shut down whilst suffering with depression. My memory of that depressive period are incredibly hazy. When I try to think back to that point in my life all that really springs to mind is a cold, heavy feeling in my chest which takes me back to the days on end I spent sitting on my bed in a grey, miserable bubble. I remember glimpses of conversations I had with people at the time, such as when I was labelled ‘over-sensitive’, other than that it is a chunk of my life which remains shrouded in a cloud of fear I’m not really ready to make my way through just yet. However, the phrase ‘over-sensitive’ still hurts me to this day. It is an obvious example of someone buying into the stigma around mental health and trying to tell me that it was a character weakness of mine which was causing me to suffer, erasing the fact that depression is a serious illness.
I remember the first time I went to see a counsellor. I was scared stiff and my anxiety was the only thing my mind and body had space to feel. She asked me what I was worried about and I told her that I was scared she would think I was ‘pathetic’. I was 16 at the time and my self-esteem had been completely decimated by the narrative that suffering with your mental health makes you less of a person. I carried that weight around with me everyday as I avoided people’s eye contact at school and went to elaborate lengths to hide the fact that I was having to leave lessons early to go to counselling sessions. Stigma had taught me that my mental health was something to be ashamed about and a part of me to be hidden at all costs.
How many other people in the world have felt that way too?
Stigma around anxiety led me to skip school rather than tell my teacher that trying to make me do a presentation in front of the class was unacceptable when he knew that I was suffering at the time and could barely vocalise my thoughts in front of one person let alone a whole class. I thought that he would laugh it off or tell me that I would have to grow-up one day and make me do the presentation anyway. So, I missed a whole day of school because I knew how widespread the stigma around anxiety was (and still is).
I waited for years to tell anyone about my OCD because I thought that they would call me ‘crazy’ once I explained my rituals and intrusive thoughts. Stigma around OCD means that it is not talked about much in society other than in regards to people who clean obsessively when, in reality, the disorder is a lot more complex than that. So, I purposely did not mention these symptoms throughout all of the counselling, therapy and assessment sessions I had. If I had not been so worried about the labels which I thought people who attach to me due to my experiences, I could have gotten my OCD diagnosis so much earlier.
The stigma around mental health led me to suffer with self-harm alone. I was petrified about what people would think of me if they found out and I imagined scenarios in which people would call me an ‘attention seeker’ for what I was doing. So, quickly my habitual self-harming thrived in my silence as keeping it a secret meant that there was no way for anybody to intervene or convince me to stop. Reaching out for help seemed like an insurmountable task because of the judgements I knew people held about self-harm, such as that it is ‘a trend’ or ‘a cry for help’. When I finally did tell a family member, I got shouted out and had angry, accusatory words thrown at me which felt like a slap in the face when it had taken me so long to open-up.
The stigma around mental health is dangerous. These experiences I have documented above affect millions of people in varying ways across the world. The stigma ingrains in us a shame around talking about our mental health and makes us feel weak for struggling. People die every year because they cannot face telling people about what they are feeling – these are the real effects of stigma. It’s time that we all break down these barriers, no matter who you are or where you come from. Normalise conversations about mental health, make it a topic that you talk about often so that others will hear and begin to think that, if they needed to, they could talk about it too. Don’t let people suffer in silence, reach out and offer an understanding shoulder to cry on. Start the conversation and others will follow.
Resources for help with mental health: