For as long as I can remember, I have been very aware of mental health. Having a parent working in from home, it was routine to hear discussions on antidepressants and psychosis growing up.
My introduction to mental health was, I’d argue, very positive. I would prance around the streets of Toronto at a young age promoting awareness for mental health before I could read. As I got a little older, my mom explained that some of the people at the fundraisers were suffering from severe mental illness, while others were not.
I remember my mom driving home the point that their illness, unlike the chickenpox was not something I’d be able to see.
A few years later, I found myself navigating my way through my first mental health diagnosis: depression.
I always kept this battle fairly private. I always had a large inventory of reasons why I was acting differently, none of which included my mental illness.
In my younger years, I only let a handful of people know I was struggling. Yet even among that exclusive crowd, it was never a topic of conversation. Being a pretty closed book, my peers would often gossip in front of me about other people’s mental health.
“Did you hear she sees a therapist?” they’d say. Or, “Yeah they’re really sketchy, I think they have an eating disorder”. These assertions would echo through my brain as I pondered “Well what did that make me?”
Ten years later, despite anti-stigma campaigns and more awareness, the narrative has barely changed. Conversations about someone’s mental health disclosure tend to be questionable.
“Do you think it’s legitimate?”
“Are they making up symptoms for attention?”
“Have they actually been diagnosed?”
There is a constant narrative (which has improved) that there is something wrong with struggling or seeing a counsellor.
These predisposed notions and skepticism can stop right here. A mental illness is, as my mother once described, something you won’t be able to see. So how are we to judge who is struggling and who isn’t by looking in from the outside?
Not to pump up my own tires, but some days my performance of pretending to be okay deserves an Oscar. It is hard work. But I put on the smile, get out of bed, and act okay. Yet as soon as I am alone, even if it’s only for a moment, I can feel myself crumbling inside while I shake back tears.
But no one around me would ever know, and that is how I prefer to handle my mental illness.
This is why I begin to fume when I hear people questioning other people’s disclosures. You have no idea what is going on in someone else’s head, and never will. No mental illness is the same. In fact, they’re often opposing symptoms, like: sleeping too much or too little, being overexcitable or sluggish, and weight gain or loss.
If you slept all the time, felt sluggish, and lost weight, this doesn’t mean someone else’s experience isn’t still valid just because it wasn’t the same. We all need to make an effort to have more conversations about mental health with more light, sincerity, and openness.
And finally, when someone discloses their illness to you, don’t question them. Believe them. Love them. Support them.