I have been in therapy for about ten years, and this is a fact I routinely share with my patients. Why? I don’t know how else to decrease the shame and stigma associated with seeking mental health support, other than starting with myself.
For reasons that are beyond my understanding, we have put mental illness in a category of its own, separate from “physical” illness. We think of those who struggle with depression or anxiety as weak, less than, or perhaps characteristic of someone who hasn’t done enough reading of self-help books or practiced positive thinking.
In reality, mental illness, similar to other medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, is illness that has biological underpinnings, and psychosocial determinants. Most people with mental illness can’t think their way out of it, any more than we can think our way out of thyroid disease. Like all other illness, conditions such as depression often require a biological intervention such as appropriate medication, psychological interventions such as psychotherapy, and social interventions such as assessing relationships, school and work. Also at play are potential lifestyle modifications, such as assessing nutrition, physical activity, and the use of tools such as mindfulness and meditation.
Mental illness and its consequences place a tremendous burden on individuals and society at large. At the same time, when individuals can access appropriate treatment, they can find symptom relief, as well as improved quality of life; that is, a life that is aligned with their core values, beliefs, and goals. However, the first step to seeking treatment, is believing that one is not alone, unworthy, or somehow defective as a result of needing treatment to begin with.
So how can each of us do our part to reduce the shame associated with a mental health disorder?
1. Speak your own struggle out loud: Having a bad day? Tell someone. Need to find a therapist? Tell someone. Struggling to get out of bed? Tell someone. Statistics prove you are not alone. Simply acknowledging your difficulties, and receiving some understanding and compassion in return, is therapeutic in and of itself.
2. Be a friend and advocate: Support your friends and family who reach out to you. This might mean encouraging them to take a mental health day, or helping them find a therapist. Let them know they are not alone. Speak up if you hear someone shaming a person who has a mental illness or is seeking treatment.
3. Accept that each person’s illness and treatment is different: What works for one person may not work for another. Each individual has the right to pursue the particular combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle modification that feels right to them. Shaming someone for taking medication or seeing a therapist, or not taking a medication or not seeing a therapist, promotes isolation.
The effort towards eradicating shame and stigma associated with mental illness has only just begun. No one should have to suffer through the darkness alone. Moving the needle requires each and every one of us to step up and share our own struggle, be there for others, and accept every individual’s autonomy in seeking the treatment that feels best. If each of us does our part, we can make an impact. Together, we are stronger.
- Monisha Vasa, M.D. | The Collective’s Co-Founder + Clinical Advisor
Photo by: Mahyar Tehrani