Legitimizing Mental Illness

In a perfect world, this article would consist of exactly one sentence: mental illness is as legitimate a condition as any physical ailment.

But the world isn’t perfect, and many people have yet to except the reality of this situation. The same professor or employer who gladly accommodates someone with a concussion, a broken limb, or the flu, will often only accommodate someone dealing with depression grudgingly—if they choose to accommodate them at all.

This past spring, for example, I had a lot of trouble making it to my first class in the morning, and went to my professor to try and work out a solution to my five absences. I explained to him that I was very sorry, that I would endeavour to be present and on time for the rest of the semester, but that I was currently on medication for anxiety and depression that made me very tired, thus causing my struggle to wake up on time.

Once the topic of mental illness came up, my professor became visibly uncomfortable. When I explained that my medication played a role in how consistently exhausted I was, he told me that if my medication was interfering with my ability to perform in school, maybe I should talk to my doctor about changing my prescription.

At that point I felt very much like telling him that I preferred missing class to being suicidal and paralyzingly anxious, but I didn’t. I simply apologized again and promised I would be in every class for the rest of the semester.

Like most people who struggle with mental illness, I hate “playing that card,” at least partially because the response I get will often match the one I just described. In addition, however, I also struggle with internalized doubts that my illness is truly valid, that there is a real reason I struggle to wake up in the morning, and that I’m not just lazy. Part of that struggle is simply a symptom of the illness, but another part is the widespread lack of education and acceptance in the world that puts the mentally ill in a constant defensive state.

So how do those of us who live with metal illness work to change its perception in the world? How do we legitimize the struggles and limitations of the mentally ill?

  1. Normalize the topic—This can be something as simple as saying “It’s time to take my medicine.” This statement by itself does a lot to convey your attitude towards your illness. It shows that you’ve accepted your illness as part of your life, you’ve taken steps to manage it, and most importantly, you are not ashamed of it. If people in your life hear you say it consistently, they will hopefully begin to incorporate it into their world view. 
  2. Start at home—Before you start trying to change the world, try changing the minds and hearts closest to you. Hopefully your friends and family already accept and support you just the way you are, but even if they do, you can still experiment with education and awareness techniques. It’s always good to practice with an audience you know and trust! 
  3. Get involved—Talk to your doctors; see if they know of any groups or upcoming events that work to support people and build awareness. Locate the nearest chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). And if there’s nothing already for you to get involved in, don’t be afraid to start something yourself. Even the biggest movements for change and reform started small at first. So hold a bake sale, or a talk at your church or local library. Someone will respond, and then you can build from there. 
  4. Give people the benefit of the doubt—This is the hardest and perhaps the most important point. It can be frustrating when people don’t understand or accept you, and it’s easy just to think of them as mean-spirited or close-minded. Chances are, however, that they’re just uneducated, conditioned by the social climate which, while changing, is still overwhelmingly negative. So before you judge, try to trust that most people aren’t malicious; they just don’t know the things you do. You will change more hearts and minds by being understanding than by being angry. 
  5. And finally, remember—If you don’t want to be involved in activism, or share your illness with the world, that is also legitimate. If you do, be kind and understanding to those who don’t. Mental illness has many different faces, and each of those faces has different needs at different times in their life. Respect that.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: VICTORIA NELSON

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As of summer 2016, I’m a rising senior English major at the University of Dallas in Irving, TX. I’m not sure what exactly I want to do with that yet, but I know I want to change the world, so I write a lot and talk even more. I have a lot of ideas that I’m excited to share with people. I try to be a writer, and I fancy myself a philosopher, but mostly I’m just a lover of life.

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