Mental Health Week
Mental health/illness is hard to talk about. When you experience physical pain you go to the doctor. But what about emotional pain? With that you’re meant to suck it up and get on with it.
Mental illness is often compared to invisible illnesses, such as diabetes (of all types). You can’t see diabetes, just as you can’t see depression or anxiety. Sometimes because it can’t be seen, it’s easy to minimise/misunderstand the effects of it. If someone breaks their leg, you can see them struggling to get around. But if someone is having a crazy day of blood sugars you probably can’t see how they’re feeling.
I find t1d pretty easy to talk about and explain to others. I really don’t mind running over the same explanations. That is, unless someone keeps saying idiotic/hurtful things AFTER I’ve outlined what it is and confirmed they understand. I think that’s because even though t1d is an invisible illness, once someone has seen a low blood sugar, or even just watched you check your level, they take it seriously. To some extent, they can understand it because of the physical aspects of the disease such as fingerpricks and injections.
But mental illness is so hard to talk about, because there aren’t a list of physical signs. Plus, (like t1d) no one has the same experience. Mental illness carries a stigma, and sometimes it’s perceived as being “crazy”.
I don’t think that stigma should exist. Being stuck in your own head is as draining as a low blood sugar. Ruminating (thinking about things over and over again) for hours takes away solid chunks of your day because you can’t focus on anything else. Feeling like you’re not good enough or smart enough sends you into a cycle of procrastination and doubt. Anxiety and depression cause physical symptoms too like dizziness, nausea, muscle ache/tension, headaches and more.
Panic attacks can cause people to rush to hospital because they think they’re dying.
So if mental illness has some physical symptoms too, why aren’t we taking it seriously?
I think the best place to start is by talking about it. It’s hard to know what to say to someone when they’re having a rough time. Beyond Blue have a great article on that for some pointers: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/resources/have-the-conversation/talking-to-someone-you-are-worried-about
Talking about it is a good thing, but it’s hard! I’ve tried the “stuff it down and pretend it doesn’t exist” way when I was in high school, and it’s really unhelpful. I didn’t know much about mental illness at the time and it got to the point where the physical symptoms were disrupting my day. I’d start the morning with an enormous headache, leave for the bus and come over dizzy and nauseous, and end up unable to focus all day. I'd get incredibly upset before every exam and assignment, sometimes to the point where I couldn't sit still or breathe normally. One time I was meant to go to the city with some friends. I bought a train ticket, put it through the gate and felt like I was going to pass out. So I went back through the barriers and there went my day and train fare. Same thing happened every time I went near a hospital.
Panic attack, not that I knew that at the time. The anxiety had built up so much that it was completely unpredictable. My resting state was anxious. But once I started talking about it and learning what it was, it got a lot better. That doesn’t mean it’s gone, but it means I have strategies that stop it building up to such an extent.
Now I have a wonderful group of friends who have been incredibly supportive over what has been a tricky (almost) 2 years. From the time we’ve met there’s been some drama going on with me, and sometimes that makes me think I’m a burden/downer/draining presence. I had to give away a lot about myself very early into the friendships, because I couldn’t deal with everything by myself.
That was really scary! It feels weird being the one talking about it when I was used to being the supportive friend.
But I’ve been left with friends that are so incredibly kind, considerate, and patient. I know that I have a lot of people around me to help, just as I do for them. They assure me I’m not a burden, and that even though it’s been mostly me with the dramas lately, they know I would do the same for them if they were having a hard time.
However that might be because I sometimes bake apology brownies ;)
All it takes to start a conversation is a little courage, compassion and a willingness to listen.