I wanted to talk today about something that kept me from seeking help for my eating disorder and depression. It kept me sick much longer, made me feel so much more alone, and because of it, I walked in a great deal of shame that I should have never taken on. What was it? It was simply the stigma that comes with mental illness. I work in a hospital filled with different kinds of health care professionals – people that are supposed to be educated on all kinds of mental illness. Sadly though, I still hear the judgmental comments that simply comes from being naive to what mental illness truly is. And although a lot of people do have their own judgments about mental illness, it wasn’t those people’s judgments that kept me from seeking help, it was my own.
For a long time, I thought an eating disorder was a sin issue – that I was choosing to starve myself over choosing to live for God or that I was being selfish and somehow prideful. I thought not being able to stop binging and purging meant that I was weak. I thought my anxiety just showed that I was not in control. I thought my depression was just something I needed to snap out of. I thought I was too fat for eating disorder treatment, not suicidal enough to get on an antidepressant, and not having nearly enough panic attacks to be diagnosed with true anxiety. These are just a few of the hundreds of different stigmas or judgments about mental illnesses. I could go on listing different stigmas that keep us from getting the help we need – but if you struggle with a mental illness, you probably already have a list of reasons why you think you don’t deserve help, why it would be embarrassing to admit your struggle, or what people might think about you. I want to talk about ways to tear down the fear and shame that these stigmas bring so that you can get to the healing and help you need
- You are not your illness. You are not anorexia – You have the illness anorexia. You are not bipolar – you have bipolar disorder. You are not a cutter – you have depression and self harm. Learn to see yourself as a living, breathing person who is struggling with something hard. You have a ton of other things about you besides your illness – you’re a sister, a friend, a coworker, a daughter, a student, a wife, a mom. You are not your illness.
- Mental illness is an illness.. I used to just say “oh this is what I struggle with” which I think downgrades the seriousness of it. You were diagnosed with anxiety. There is medication for it. There are things you can do to make it better and things you can do to make it worse. I’m not saying an eating disorder is the same as cancer but I am saying both involve getting medical, professional treatment and needing to follow through with your treatment plan. Cancer patients have to get chemo/radiation/MRIs….eating disorder patients having to get on certain meds/follow a meal plan/be in counseling. Not the same – but a mental illness is a legit illness – you didn’t choose this, which is confusing because with eating disorders, choices you made led you to it – but to some extent, it was out of your control. But you do have control over getting help for it.
- Walk out of the shame. Your mental illness is not a sign of personal weakness. It’s not something you can wish away. And it’s not your fault. Seek help, treatment, counseling, and support – you deserve it
- Surround yourself with people who earn the right to hear your story. You don’t have to go around telling everyone you have bipolar or schizophrenia and in fact, in most cases, I don’t think you should. I think people need to prove that they are kind, trustworthy, and deserving of hearing your story. Once someone has proved they would have a positive impact on your recovery – open up and be honest with them. Go to support groups with others struggling with your illness. You are not alone in this and sometimes being in a room of other addicts or similar people can help lift the shame and stigma of your situation.
- Be bold and brave. When I hear a nurse or doctor say something potentially hurtful about a patient (she’s doing this for attention…or it’s not THAT big of a deal…), I try to be bold enough to speak truth kindly. No, in fact, she’s not starving herself for your attention. She’s doing it because it’s the only way she can think to cope in a chaotic family system. Or no, taking 5 Benadryl may not be that big of a deal, but if he did it hoping it would hurt himself, THAT is a big deal and deserves our help. I try to educate coworkers, friends, family, and you who are reading this that people struggling with an eating disorder or other mental illness need your help, compassion, and support. I want to help break down as many stigmas and barriers to treatment that I can for people even if that means making myself vulnerable.
So don’t let the stigma of your illness keep you from seeking the help you need or taking the steps you need to get to your healing. Treat your mental illness like any other sickness. You may need medication, you may need hospitalization, or you may just need time off to decompress and relax – whatever it is, take one step today to bring you closer to wholeness and healing.