During today’s first walk, I spent time talking with an old friend from high school. We talked about many things, but one thing we touched upon that got me thinking was the amount of stigma associated with seeking out help for mental illness.
This strikes me as so odd given the prevalence of mental illness. It sometimes seems as though there are more of us out there with diagnoses than without. From my perspective, “If you’re not anxious, you’re not paying attention.” The world gives us so much to worry about that in many ways spiraling into a nervous cycle of despair seems like a more rational reaction than pushing forward with naïve optimism.
Of course, I say this as someone suffering from mental illness: this is what the world looks like to me. I understand, theoretically, that there are people in the world who are not wracked with guilt about every mistake they’ve made or paralyzed by their fear of the future. I believe that such people exist in the same way I believe that bears exist: I hear that they’re out there, but I’ve only seen them twice in the wild.
I know that this is partially selection bias: my neurotic friends and I found each other for a reason. The numbers give a slightly more balanced perspective, which is that about 1 in 5 people have what’s classified as “any mental illness” (with 5% of people suffering from “severe mental illness”).
This means that, while mental illness is not universal, it is quite common. So why is there still so much stigma associated with seeking out help for it? Even for people who do try medication or therapy, the most common story I seem to hear is, “I suffered with this pain for years before I finally admitted I needed help.”
My own journey began that way: I didn’t start seeing a therapist until I was 28 and in graduate school, when my work stopped being social in nature. This meant that I lacked the space to externally process my anxiety, and I began to feel the effects of internalizing all those feelings. (Side note: coworkers are not therapists and should not be treated as such. I, unfortunately, did not have that insight at the time).
I was never particularly embarrassed about going to therapy, but I was a bit reluctant. What good could talking do? Was I just paying someone to listen to me when I could have just set up more regular calls with my friends?
In some ways, that felt true at first. But gradually I began to see the ways in which my therapist’s insightful questions and keen observations unsurfaced patterns that I hadn’t recognized before. How she zeroed in on the sources of some of my fears and insecurities and helped me predict when I would face the greatest anxiety so I could prepare for it.
At the end of the day, therapy (and treatment for mental illness, in general) is about getting to know yourself. And this, at its core, could be the root of our society’s shame around it.
It is normalized in our society to be selfish or self-absorbed, as social media, in particular, proves (I, for one, am extremely guilty of this). And some mistakenly place therapy in that same category: as a self-indulgent act of wallowing in your problems and seeking external validation for your choices.
Therapy is substantially more difficult than that, however, because (when used properly) it requires you to truly get to know yourself: not some idealized version of yourself that you present to the world, but your truest, most raw self. You’re required to become self-aware: to be in touch with what you feel and why you feel it. To identify your emotions, understand them, and let them guide your actions. To recognize and disrupt your destructive thought patterns in a process of self-improvement.
This explicitly requires us to admit that things within us are imperfect: which can be a hard pill to swallow. Some people don’t want to submit to a treatment that forces them to confront problems so directly. Some parents or loved ones see those who are struggling through idealized eyes, making treatment unnecessary or counterproductive from their perspective.
Yet all of us have flaws: those of us with diagnoses are just the ones whose imperfections tend to be a bit more disruptive to our lives. But we should all be taking this journey towards self-acceptance.
I’ve often said that if I won the lottery I’d start a nonprofit where we just handed out free dogs and free therapy to everyone.
Here’s to hoping.
Thanks for reading,
96 miles down, 4 miles to go