Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of interesting comments from people when they learn that I live with mental illness. Advice is probably the most common theme, as in – have you tried focusing on the positive? Do you get enough fresh air? Going vegan might help and you should probably stop drinking coffee. I’ve also been on the receiving end of reprimands where I’ve been told that I need a perspective check, that I should be grateful for all that I have in my life and that I should be ashamed of myself because people have “real” problems.
But a little while ago, I had an encounter that was the first of its kind in all my years as a mental health advocate. I was walking out of a meeting at a local hospital for MINDSTRONG, a mental health fundraiser I’m proudly co-chairing this year, with a fellow committee member when we were approached by a man introduced to me as a staff social worker. As we walked down the corridor, he asked why I was involved in raising funds for mental health.
I explained that I’m an advocate, that I live with mental illness and that I’d been a patient in the psychiatric ward. He responded by telling me that I was “too elegant and pretty” to have been a psych patient. He went on to ask how I was feeling and when I said that there are ups and downs, he pointed out that I certainly looked recovered.
It reminded me a lot of the time someone asked how I could have depression given that I was “so skinny”.
Not only was this shocking, coming from a mental health professional, but it also felt offensive and judgemental. I told him that it was really bad to judge a book by its cover – and that it was especially terrible coming from a social worker.
I left that unpleasant encounter feeling really frustrated. Because even with the strides made in destigmatizing and normalizing mental illness, there’s still a huge misconception that it “looks” a certain way. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. That afternoon in the hospital, for instance, where I had a full face of makeup and a cute outfit, had been preceded by a morning where I lay on the floor, crying hysterically, hoping the ground would swallow me up.
And another example: maybe you’ll remember the video that the late Chester Bennington’s wife posted on social media shortly after he died by suicide. Just 36 hours before he hanged himself, she’d filmed him laughing and smiling, playing a game with their kids.
And that’s my point. Depression can look like writhing around on the floor in terrible pain, but it can also look like laughing with your kids and pink lipstick. Depression can be non-functional, lying in your bed with no energy or motivation, but it can also be highly-functional, hyper-productive non-stop energy so you don’t have time to think.
People experience cancer in different ways. Some lose their hair, some don’t. Some experience terrible nausea and some don’t. There is no one size fits all profile for any physical illness, and there isn’t one for mental illness either.
If you’d like to help fight the mental illness stigma, one thing you can do is stop making judgements about how people are feeling on the inside by what you see on the outside. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate based on attractiveness, body size, financial status or anything else, and it certainly isn’t a choice. So instead of commenting on how someone with mental illness looks, ask how they’re feeling. A little compassion can make a big difference.