The Problem With Being Honest About Mental Illness

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By Anna Gragert

Less than one year ago, I was diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder and mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This was not a shock to me, but I was still ashamed. I thought that if I was honest about my mental disorder, people would think differently of me. I thought that, when people looked at me, all they would see is someone with mental issues. In a judgmental and competitive high school, I knew that this would be the case and there was no way that I was ready to subject myself to any negative treatment.

When I first arrived at college, I made the decision to be honest. After all, there is nothing that I can do about my mental disorder. No matter how much medication I take, or how much therapy I undergo, I will always have a mental illness. It is like the diabetes of the mind. You can only placate the disorder, but you can never cure it. Hence, my anxiety disorder and I are going to be lifelong best friends, so why not be upfront about it?

Throwing caution to the wind, I began to tell everyone I met about my anxiety disorder. I would even bring it up within the first few minutes of conversation. Being honest felt absolutely amazing. It gave me a sense of freedom. What I did not realize is that people would react a certain way to this information.

Telling most people that I have a mental illness, typically, causes the other person to express a saddened facial expression. It is as if they just saw someone kick a puppy. I have even seen some people be brought to tears. This is completely unnecessary. Just because I have a mental disorder does not mean that I am constantly depressed and that I need every last ounce of your sympathy. It is my own problem and, even though I may need to vent sometimes, don’t think of it any differently simply because you know of my mental disorder. People with mental disorders complain and vent in the same way that “normal” people do. We just have a name to go along with our specific set of issues.

People also seem to think that it is okay to use my mental disorder as an excuse for my behavior. Suddenly, after being open with others, standing up for myself became “a mental breakdown.” People automatically assume that if I am angry, hurt, or upset, it is simply because I have anxiety. My feelings are dismissed as a symptom, a panic attack, an anxiety issue, or a full-blown mental meltdown. Trust me, if I was to have a mental meltdown, I would not broadcast it or do it in front of an audience. Do not treat mental illness as an excuse for the way I express myself.

I have a mental disorder. I am not suicidal. Just because some mental illnesses are severe enough to cause suicidal thoughts, it does not mean that this is the case for everyone. I remember telling someone, during a random conversation, that, on our campus, there is an on-call psychologist available for anyone that needs immediate assistance. In response to this, the person said, “That is very good to know.” After, I got a look that said, “Don’t you even think about trying to kill yourself because, now, I have a nifty number just in case, you ticking time bomb.” I am not a ticking time bomb, nor do I need someone to act like I am about to go over the edge because I suffer from anxiety and OCD. I appreciate the concern, but I do not appreciate the assumptions that are made. There are people that are much worse off than I am, so, if suicide is something that you are concerned with, offer them your concern because I do not need it.

Going to therapy does not mean that I have an emotional, tear-filled session every time I enter my therapist’s office. It is simply a way for me to express my feelings, receive feedback, and learn to cope with the mental state that I was given. If you see me after therapy, please don’t look at me like I just returned from war. Also, it is not okay to assume that I am going to tell you about everything that I talked about with my therapist. If I casually mention that I went to therapy earlier in the day, people tend to ask me, “How was it?” While I appreciate the desire to keep the conversation going, please do not look at me like you expect me to tell you about everything that goes on in therapy. Even though I am happily honest about going to therapy, it does not mean that I am going to tell you about all of my issues. It simply means that I accept the fact that I have to go to therapy and I do not consider it to be a big deal.

When I tell people that I am receiving medication and treatment for my mental disorder, they automatically assume that all of my problems are solved. What people do not realize is that our country does not properly take care of and regulate the mentally ill. Therapy is expensive, not all therapists care about their patients, therapists have too many patients and cannot focus on regulating each one, not every medication will do the trick, and not everything is regulated. These are only a handful of the problems associated with how the mentally ill are treated. Therefore, when I tell you that I am working to gain control over my mental illness with therapy and medication, do not assume that all is good and done.

Even though I experience mixed results when expressing that I have a mental illness, it is not going to prevent me from being open and honest. The United States (along with other countries, I am sure) has a mental illness problem. Even though there are no longer jail-like mental asylums of the past, we still have a long way to go. This problem is not going to be solved by staying quiet and pretending that nothing is wrong. Nor is the solution going to come from treating the mentally ill as if they are inferior and weak. The solution is to demand to be treated like a human being with rights and personal truths, regardless of our mental condition.

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