Mental illnesses are some of the most common disorders in the world, affecting more than 450 million people, one in four people around the globe. So why the stigma? Why are people that are diagnosed with mental illness treated as lesser, weaker people?
I’ve suffered with mental illness for as long as I could remember. When I was in the third grade, my parents started to notice out-of-the-ordinary behavior from me. They let the behavior go, hoping it would dwindle and eventually disappear altogether. Unfortunately, that was not the case. The odd behavior only worsened, and they rushed me to a doctor, a psychiatrist, and a scan specialist. An MRI scan and three psychiatrist visits later, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and Tourette's syndrome . At only age eight, I was already diagnosed with something that would continue to affect me for most likely the rest of my life. The medication started small; every morning I would take twenty-five milligrams of sertraline. It was sugar coated when I was told what was happening to me. I didn’t realize that my little twitches and outbursts of singing or random sounds could be something worth a diagnosis.
Immediately, I could feel this new stigma around me. My parents had a meeting with my teachers and explained my situation. I was moved to the front of the classroom to sit near my teacher, I had daily visits to the nurse’s office, and what felt like hundreds of eyes watching me closely and scrutinizing my every move. This treatment continued pretty similarly for years. It followed me through the remainder of intermediate school, my phases through sixth and seventh grade, but changed in the eighth grade. Higher levels of stress as I was approaching high school led to periods of erratic behavior. Some days I was ecstatic going places with friends, and others I didn’t leave the house. I would panic about being alone, but would reject any contact with other people, including my parents. My mental health became a seesaw, teetering on its fulcrum. It was my well-being against a load of anxiety, depression, and panic; it always seemed that I was the one that lost.
When it was time for me to enter high school, I was a disaster. Shortly after the first day, I was diagnosed with yet another illness. This time, it was panic disorder. I had drawn the short straw again, and now had nightly panic attacks, along with long periods of depression and anxiety. There wasn’t much I could do for this but try therapy and keep medicating. My life seemed pretty steady for a while, sometimes there were ups, sometimes there were downs, but there were bumps along the way, and problems that sometimes felt like potholes. Now, death hits everyone hard, no matter their situation, but with my current state, this time it felt like I wasn’t going to get back up. I was inside for weeks, I didn’t socialize, I didn’t want to eat, I always felt sick. It took forever to get out of this funk, and I never really felt the same for months after. This invisible illness took something that was bad enough already, and made it into something that was so difficult to return from, I almost didn’t.
Today I live with countless mental illnesses. From anxiety and depression to hypochondria and Tourette’s. I still feel this stigma attached to me, that I’m weaker, that I could be brought down easier, that I shouldn’t exhibit my illnesses around people. I’ve left sections on documents and permission slips empty in fear that knowledge of my illnesses would keep me out of opportunities I deserve. I’ve become embarrassed when people bring up my well-being around people I have just met, or sometimes even long term friends. I’ve been told countless times to walk away from social situations when taking medication, or to not bring it up at all. I’ve missed doses, and avoided taking medication when persecuted by people. I’ve lost friends, missed opportunities. So, this stigma, this dangerous mark. Why do we need it? Short answer is - we don’t. People with mental illnesses shouldn’t be ashamed of what they have or what they are. We’re just as strong, and no different. Erase the stigma around mental illness. And please, take your medication.