Is Mental Health Still Taboo?
Is Mental Health Still Taboo?
By Emma Carey
When I was at university, I'd never heard of the term 'mental health'. If someone I knew had anxiety, I thought that meant they were making a deal out of nothing and couldn't cope with life. Depression was completely unknown territory, and all I knew was that it involved suicide, which I considered selfish.
It's strange looking back at how ignorant I was because now my view has completely changed. I guess that's what happens when you are personally affected by mental illness, whether it's yourself or someone you love.
There's been a massive movement with mental health in the past ten years, but even so, I wonder if it's more taboo than we think? Yes, the world is talking about it, but does that mean we're entirely revolutionised? I think not.
Why mental health is still taboo
Taboo #1 Taking medication means you're a failure
I seriously judged everyone on medication, and to be honest, I still do, even though I'm on it myself. I felt medication was unnecessary and only for those who can't cope. I'm less harsh on myself nowadays, but sometimes I still believe I'm not trying enough to cure my depression naturally.
I resisted medication so much, even after suffering from chronic depression for three years and had panic attacks at least once a day.
When I first went to see a mental health nurse, I put on such a good front. I said I was coping and didn't like what was happening, but it would be okay. I told her I was meditating, eating good food, and exercising. She responded that it didn't seem I was at the point of needing meds, I agreed.
But privately, I was beating myself up for not meditating enough. I told myself I was lazy when I couldn't haul myself out for a run because I was so exhausted. Clean eating became an eating disorder.
All these scientific studies and podcasts I listened to said when people took care of their bodies, they reduced and even eliminated depression.
I told myself that if I had depression, I just wasn't trying hard enough.
So when I finally started taking meds, I felt like such a failure. It meant I had given up, and I could not fix myself. 'Giving up' felt unbearable, like I was worthless. Little did I know, it was the first vital step in asking for support.
The world around you influences your viewpoint and judgment. Taking medication is never an easy option. You have to commit, deal with the side effects, and have checkups. And it still doesn't solve everything. It just makes things bearable enough that you can get the long-lasting help you need.
Opting for medication doesn't mean you're a failure. It means you're accepting support.
Taboo #2 Doctors still dismiss mental illness
The medical world is taking mental illness a lot more seriously nowadays. Still, it's going to take more than basic training to shift the generational view that mental illness is for weak people.
If you want to get help from a doctor, you have to be really specific and brutally honest about how your mental health affects you. That's all well and good, but if you have depression, you're very closed off. You don't have any experience with mental illness, and you don't want to admit what your life is like.
Doctors don't ask the right questions. They want you to diagnose yourself and tell them, 'I have depression and need help.' But you don't necessarily know that's the problem or how to help yourself. You need a professional to diagnose and treat you. Call me stupid, but isn't that the definition of a doctor?
I remember two instances when I visited a doctor about my depression.
The first was a woman I went to see after I physically couldn't get out of bed for an entire weekend. It's strange, looking back I think, how can you not move your body? You just lift it and walkabout. But it felt like my whole insides had turned to wet sand. I could barely do anything but lie in bed, willing myself to get up, but I couldn't even lift my head. My chest physically hurt, like I had something large lodged there, and it felt as though it was collapsing inwards.
People think mental health is all 'mental,' but it's not. It manifests into physical pain, and you get used to feeling in pain all the time.
When I told my doctor about being unable to get out of bed, she said, 'do you have anxiety?' I don't know, I replied. I've never had a diagnosis, but I feel anxious a lot. She asked me how long the feeling lasted, and I told her about three days. She waved it off, saying, 'Oh, it's only depression if it lasts three-six weeks. People with anxiety can get depressive episodes, but it's not actually depression.'
What?! I mean, what?! I was completely dismissed. How, how did she not know that it was a severe episode of depression? Little did I know I had been experiencing depression for over a year.
The second time was an old man who didn't even attempt to hide his view that 'depression was for millennials who were spoilt and yet were moaning about life'. I told him my mental health was terrible. He asked me, 'are you exercising?' I immediately felt guilty and said, 'not every day.' He had to restrain himself from rolling his eyes. 'You need to be exercising every day,' he told me. While making it very clear that it was entirely my fault, and how did I expect to get better if I didn't try?
I was 26 and under six stone when I went to see that doctor.
I had an extremely active job, ran once a week, did yoga 20 minutes every day and walked 40 minutes to and from work. But I didn't count walking or yoga as exercise because I was depressed. And people with depression are so harsh on themselves.
Also, can we just reiterate I was under six stone. How could he have been so blind not to see me? A bad doctor, that's how.
Taboo #3 'Everyone has mental health these days.'
While that fact isn't untrue, you need to say it in the voice of someone dripping in sarcasm.
Yes, everyone has mental health like they have physical health, but according to many older generations, everyone has anxiety or depression. Apparently, it didn't exist in 'their' day, which is mind-boggling when you come to think about it. Of course it did.
But maybe, they didn't know what it was. They believed that what they were experiencing was normal. Perhaps, because it was all they'd ever known, they couldn't recognise anything different.
Having a real fear about leaving the house, feeling embarrassed when you try to talk to people, and never trying new things because you think you'll be rubbish are all signs of social anxiety. But how would you know that if you never knew the words 'social anxiety'?
Being snappy day in day out, feeling angry at the world, the slightest thing pissing you off, always crying or never crying at all. That's not normal, but it's common.
Nowadays, the difference isn't that some people are too emotional (a.k.a weaker) and others are stronger (a.k.a better), but we know what mental health is. There is more awareness about it.
Ten years ago, when all my hair fell out, I lost loads of weight, and I couldn't leave my bedroom at university. I didn't have a clue what was happening. I never even thought about it, to be honest. Because it went away, and yes, I felt sad for about six months but wasn't that 'normal?'
Just like there aren't more world disasters now than there were in the 70s, there is not more mental illness, just more awareness.
Or maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps mental illness has skyrocketed. After all, the planet is dying. I mean, that's a pretty valid reason to feel powerless and hopeless when you don't know if you want to bring kids into the world because you're not sure they'll have a chance at life.
18-year olds in the past few decades weren't worried about the end of the planet, but they are now.
Taboo #5 Anxiety isn't serious
I honestly used to think anxiety was for nervy people who couldn't get a grip. But since having it, I've come to realise it can be earth-shattering.
Imagine your stomach constantly feeling like something is writhing around inside you. You try to eat, but you're so full of this horrible feeling there's no room for food. You're heart races all the time and makes painful twinges. You experience hot flushes, and sometimes you're breathing goes so shallow and rapid you think that it's going to kill you.
It seems so stupid and silly if you've never experienced anything like it. Of course it does! It's like asking someone to understand what an epileptic seizure feels like if you've never had one. How could you?! It would be near enough impossible.
But anxiety is painful. It impacts your ability to talk to people, get dressed, leave the house, go to bed, get up. The thoughts in your head are horrendous. And anxiety can lead to depression which can end in suicide.
We need to take anxiety way more seriously.
Taboo #6 'What have you got to be depressed or anxious about?'
Society tends to deem the only valid reason for depression is if someone dies. Maybe a natural disaster, or both if you really want to qualify.
Even if the above does happen, you're expected to get on with life, and as for anxiety, you can forget about it.
How harsh is that?
Really really harsh! I mean, have some compassion, both for yourself and other people. So what if, in your eyes, they haven't earned the 'right' to be depressed? It doesn't change anything. Instead, it pushes that person further away from support, so they shut themselves off from the world.
The thing is, people with depression and anxiety are getting on with it. They're getting on with life as best they can despite everything.
Having a mental illness doesn't mean the world stops. It carries on. You still need to eat and work and sleep. And you do, because you have no other choice. Not until it completely takes over.
Everyone responds to experiences differently. Whereas some people may lie in bed, paralysed by what's happening, someone else may act as though nothing has changed. The second person has functioning depression or anxiety. Neither is better or worse than the other, but we praise someone who continues like nothing has happened because they are deemed 'strong'. But being strong doesn't mean they don't struggle to get up in the morning, that they're sleeping soundly, in a good mood all the time and or not as easily affected by hard times as other people.
It means they're coping differently by compartmentalising it all, but that isn't any better. You are not acknowledging the pain you feel because it will threaten to overwhelm you. But whether you acknowledge it or not, it's still there, and it will come out in other ways sooner or later.
Taboo #6 Depression isn't natural
Oh, I beg to differ, Margaret. Depression is absolutely natural. Just like your body develops a cough and the sniffles when it's fighting off a cold, your brain uses depression to communicate that something is wrong.
Depression is a form of prolonged and intense stress or unprocessed trauma. Maybe you're surrounded by toxic people, every single day of work is awful, you have no money, no friends or family around you. You're alone. This has been going on for months on end.
That's not good. It puts stress on your body, so your body responds by telling you something significant has to change. You can eat healthy food, exercise and take your medication, but if you don't eliminate the major stressors in your life, your body will never begin to heal.
What's more, some of these stressors cannot be removed. Family problems, fear of becoming homeless, isolation because you're in a different city. They are not easy fixes. They take time to either resolve or recover from. And sometimes, they'll be there for your entire life. You can't 'fix' everything.
You have reason to feel depressed and anxious. Your body is communicating to you, and you're ignoring it because that's what society has told us to do.
Taboo #7 People who take their own lives are selfish or take the 'easy way out.'
It's a hard one because I don't necessarily disagree with this statement, but mainly because I still can't get my head around it.
When someone does not choose to leave the world, it rips their community apart. The amount of people you will affect when you die is astronomical. And it lasts long-term. So why, why, would anyone choose to take their own life? How selfish it that to cause intense, long-lasting pain to the people you love. You clearly don't love them, or you wouldn't dream of putting them through that.
Now let's look at the other side. Imagine being in chronic pain for years. Because although it may be difficult to comprehend unless you experience it, severe depression is chronic pain. I'm talking about chronic physical pain.
Lifting your food to your mouth and eating is draining. You often don't finish meals because you are so exhausted. Swallowing your food physically hurts, that's if you can swallow at all. Your throat feels raw, dry and like there's something lodged in it. Walking is hard. Your body is insanely heavy. You have to drag yourself through the day physically.
Your chest hurts all the time. It's a deep ache, like something heavy is lodged inside you. You never forget it's there. You always feel it. You get migraines and the worst colds all year round. You're almost constantly sick. You have aches and pains all over your body. Your joints hurt, your jaw seizes up. You barely sleep, maybe getting 4 hours for years on end. That's before the thoughts.
A voice inside your head tells you you are worthless and you should just give up. It's there from the moment you wake up and throughout your sleepless nights. You feel like a burden to everyone around you. Because you are, it's not a lie. You can't think or do anything for yourself. You ignore the thoughts, the pain, time and time and time again. But little by little, day by day, as the months and years go by, you're not sure you can continue. It wears you down like a wave beating against a rock. It takes a long time, but eventually, it crumbles.
Suicide is not the easy way out. It's a violent death. It's your body's last resort to ending chronic pain. You're finally at peace with leaving the world, and you believe the world is better off without you in it.
Taboo #7 Going to therapy is embarrassing
Asking for support from another person is bad enough, let alone paying money for it. I couldn't get out of my head the narrative that therapy is for rich people, lounging on a sofa with cash to spare. The therapists bleed you dry for every penny you're worth. If you go, then you've been conned.
Now I know that those thoughts show trust issues with other people. When we are hurt by our friends, partners, and family, how are we going to trust a stranger not to do the same? Especially when you're expected to share your deepest fears and most painful experiences.
If you go to therapy, you're weak. You know you're family are ashamed, your work colleagues act all weird if you tell them about it, so you resist therapy or never go. Even if you take the leap, it's not uncommon to keep it on the down-low from other people.
It's okay to go to therapy. It's better than okay, it's great! If you feel awkward calling it therapy, then call it something else. I call it counselling, and others say, 'I'm seeing someone about my mental health.'
If you have the energy, tell people how counselling is going, make your family aware that you're going, or that's what you're doing on Wednesday evening, so you can't go for a work drink. People will get used to it, and their awkwardness is not yours to take on.
But if you'd rather keep it to yourself, it's okay that only you know. You are the most important person in your life after all.
The taboos of mental health have changed.
Mental illness is still very much taboo, but not how we think. Just because we talk about it, it doesn't make it any easier. It doesn't eliminate generations of shame and disdain for mental illness. Just like mental illness takes time to heal, so does society.