I was seventeen when I was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety. I cannot begin to explain the overwhelming sadness that threatened to consume me that day. My preconceived notions about mental illness had led me to believe that this would be a tragic character flaw; I would never be the same person again.
Now at twenty-one, I look back at the girl in that psychiatrist’s office four years ago and know that I am no longer that person. However, that sadness no longer clings to my chest. I am proud of the person I have become today and celebrate the progress I have made in enduring my depression and anxiety. Though I can’t rewind the clock and sit my younger self down, I want her to know how important the following five things are:
1. Mental Illness is not like other illnesses.
The tragic misconception about mental illness is that it does not follow the natural pathology of human sickness. Mental illness is not a cold or an infection that runs a certain chronological course with strict medicinal instructions. You cannot put a Band-Aid over anxiety or an ice pack on depression. Every person’s experience with mental illness is different and requires unique treatment. What may work for a friend of yours may not work for you. Don’t punish yourself if you go through months of treatment and you still feel the same. Be patient and kind to yourself as you process the way mental illness plays a role in your life.
2. Courage is not the absence of fear.
There will be times when you are afraid of how vulnerable you feel when you’re exposed to the darkest parts of depression. When your lows pull you so deep within yourself you don’t know how to find your way out. Do not let these moments discredit the continuous progress you make to better yourself. Do not think that just because you succumb to that sadness that it defines who you will be when you come out of that pain. Every morning you wake up to fight the same demons who work so hard against you; that, my brave girl, is courage.
3. Have faith in the people that love you and put your trust in them.
Being diagnosed with depression is terrifying – telling your loved ones is even more daunting. You’re scared that they’ll judge you and their perceptions of you will change. Even worse, they’ll turn their backs on you and leave you all alone. This is where the power of human compassion is truly demonstrated. The people in your life who love you and embrace every part of you will not walk away in your time of need. Rather, you are presenting them with an extraordinary opportunity. By letting people do something meaningful for you, it is also meaningful for them. There are very few opportunities in life where we feel like we’re doing something really meaningful for someone else. Trusting another person with your pain and suffering is a powerful gesture.
4. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you are less of a person because you have a mental illness.
Being a functioning human despite mental health issues is something to be proud of, not ashamed of. It is possible to wake up every morning, go to class, spend time with others, and still suffer from depression and anxiety. Depression/any other mental illness is not something that every person wears on his or her exterior. I have met many successful people who present collected fronts while internally wrestling with the tumultuous experience of emotional instability. Your entire day-to-day life is spent interacting with people while coping with depression. Do not ever let someone treat you or see you as less of a person because you suffer from mental illness. You are just as capable and just as deserving as any other person of success and achievement. To the people who would strike you down with negative stereotypes and misconceptions, cut them out of your life. Your value does not decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.
5. Be mindful and respectful of the way you talk about mental illness.
Psycho. Nut job. Crazy. Damaged goods. These are some of the labels I see slapped across people who suffer from mental illness. Sometimes we use these labels ourselves because self-deprecation is a coping mechanism. If we can laugh at our own mental illness, then maybe it’s not so bad. But remember that these labels can hurt other people who are struggling. They have the power to tear people down when they’re in their most fragile state. If you choose to use these words as a way to handle your own situation, be cognizant of the way you use them around other people. The next time you hear someone refer to a person as “psycho” or “crazy,” remind them that everyone has their own issues to deal with and that that person deserves to be seen as more than just their mental illness.
In a world that is slowly coming out of the negative stigma that has suffocated mental illness discussion for decades, I hope that these five things can give people some comfort and solace in knowing that there is at least one person who understands what they are going through. To my seventeen year old self, I not only applaud you, but thank you for giving me the inspiration and the courage to write this piece.