We’ve all heard about the “mental illness stigma.” Many of us are familiar with the statistics: Nearly one in five adult Americans has a diagnosable mental illness. We know that mental illness hides in dark corners while our society ignores the cracks these diseases create. We see the news stories about suicide, homicide and self-harm.
But how many of us have heard the personal stories of 20 percent of our friends? How many of us have heard even one?
I have struggled with depression and anxiety since I was 11 years old. I vividly remember the days when I could barely get myself to school, the many times that I yelled, “I hate you!” at my parents, the days when I had screaming fits for hours because I didn’t want to take medication or see a psychiatrist.
All too often, I would find my mother crying because she simply didn’t know how to help me. I have a disease and just like someone with diabetes or HIV, I have to manage my illness. I have good days and bad days, days when I can barely get out of bed and days when I feel like the happiest person in the world.
As a college student, I’m no stranger to the stress of school, work and deadlines. But this stress is something entirely different for someone with depression or anxiety: You have six hours to sit down and put in some good work on a paper, which you put off starting until now because it just seemed too hard. Your brain told you if you ignored it, it might just go away. Now you’re staring at your computer screen, trying to tell yourself that you can get a good chunk of work done in the next six hours.
Instead, you stall. You spend your time answering emails, following up with extracurricular activities and organizing your planner for the next week. You might start reading one of the sources you were planning on using in the paper, but the next three hours you spend thinking about how much work you have and how you will never be able to get it done.
A half hour later, you’re on the phone crying to your mom about how you’ll never get through this. The light at the end of the tunnel simply doesn’t exist, and the thought is debilitating. This isn’t your average procrastination, either–you have this voice in your head whispering, you aren’t good enough, you’ll never be able to do this, you’re a complete failure. That voice tells you it’s not worth trying and it’s not worth even leaving your apartment.
So you spend an hour watching TV in bed because, what the hell?
The worst part? You know that if you just get up, even for a minute–if you just take a walk, or a run or just write a single sentence of your assignment–it will help. But even though these thoughts are logical, that other voice in your head just throws them away. It tells you that those goals are too far away and distant to reach.
You know logically how to make the situation better. But common sense doesn’t seem to be reaching the parts of your brain that control your body. You can hear, but you can’t respond. And that other voice chimes in, saying that you are incapable of doing anything.
So you believe it. You can’t get up, but you aren’t lazy; instead you are paralyzed by your own brain, betrayed by it.
That voice never goes away. It can return unexpectedly–before your next assignment or maybe just for no reason at all. It will inevitably come back, and the only thing you can do is try to be more prepared when it does.
So the next time you see a story about mental illness in the paper, remember the story of your friend. The next time you see someone like me, withdrawn, upset for some inexplicable reason, don’t ask what’s wrong. The next time you see your friend break down over something trivial, or claim they want to be left alone, think about the voice that might be in their head. Don’t tell them to get over it. Don’t tell them to do their work so they’ll feel better.
Just be there. Show them you care and be empathetic. Don’t say you know how it feels if you can’t even imagine. Instead, just tell them you’re there for them and that you love them, no matter what.