Kyle Helton, a 2017 spring Advocacy Fellow, writes about his experience with mental illness and stigma.
Mental illness is a daily struggle.
I would know.
Depression and anxiety have haunted me for most of my life, but for a very long time I didn’t feel like I should seek help for it. The tricky thing about mental illness is that I can’t physically see that anything is wrong. If there are physical manifestations, they’re relatively innocuous: nails bit down to the quick, dark circles under my eyes, or brief periods where I dissociate, which are generally things that don’t seem to impact my moving through life. By and large I show up and get things done.
I’ve never been hospitalized and the cops have never been called on me. I consider this to be a very lucky streak in my life.
Others are not so lucky.
They need a lot more support than I do and not through any failing of their own. Mental illness just works that way; everyone is different. But often people don’t feel comfortable reaching out and getting help for what is classified as an illness because of stigma. In parts of the state, like the San Luis Valley or the Northwest Corner, nearly three out of every five people said they would feel uncomfortable talking to a medical professional about personal problems. For a long time, I was the same way.
Stigma in our culture around mental health is a huge problem.
A lot of us wouldn’t think twice about going to the hospital for a broken arm or a severe flu, but emotional and mental issues are harder to diagnose and harder to get help for.
Oftentimes those of us with a mental illness try to hide it if we can. I can’t speak for others but I don’t want to be coddled when someone finds out I’ve been having a bad week, and I certainly don’t want to be a burden to my friends and family. Humans have an insatiable desire to fit in, and here in Colorado the Western mentality tells me that I should carry my own weight. It’s hard to find space for my mental illness between the two.
Almost two out of every ten Coloradans suffers from some kind of mental illness, but in my family it might be closer to seven.
It may seem like, with mental illness being so prevalent in my gene pool, we would be more open to talking about it and supporting each other, but you would be mistaken. Of those seven family members, more than half might not even admit to having a mental illness, despite the fact that if you spent any time with them it would be very obvious. Mental illness, for a lot of them, is internalized as a moral failing. When they lash out and hurt people they love, they might think it’s because they’re bad people, or at least bad at being good people, instead of a consequence of something they should be seeing a therapist to deal with. But how can you get help if you don’t think you deserve it?
That’s the starting level for many with mental illnesses. I know it was the case with me. Because so much of my family was like myself, I figured that I was just wired the way I was wired and any attempt at change would just be a waste of time and money. It wasn’t until I was in college that I went to the university counseling center, to get help managing stress, that I started to get the validation I needed to even consider that the way I think of myself and the way other people think of me are very different. It turns out that brains are complicated and they change all the time. Just because you think you’re a bad person today doesn’t mean you’re going to think that tomorrow.
I really like to talk about mental health now and, in opening up, I’ve learned that a lot of my friends and family do as well.
Part of the work we do here at Healthier Colorado is to increase awareness of mental illness, which has helped me a lot in confronting my own issues with stigma about this topic. This work is so important because when we learn how to talk about something, we start to learn how to control it. Mental health has a high rate of comorbidity as well. Meaning that if you suffer from mental health complications, you probably suffer from other health complications as well. In our next blog post we’ll go more into the effects of comorbidity on mentally ill people, but for now take a moment to think about mental illness in your life. Do you know anyone who’s mentally ill, or are you yourself dealing with something? Fight the stigma by sharing your story, I can personally tell you that you won’t regret it.