If you were asked to draw someone with mental illness, what would they look like?
There are many stereotypes surrounding mental health. Often people imagine that those suffering with mental illness are scruffily dressed folk who come from broken or abusive families, who left school without any qualifications and fell into the wrong crowds where they got into drugs and alcohol, or who smoke weed and live off benefits. It is true that a percentage of people who struggle with their mental health may tick one or more of the stereotyped boxes, but that is because they make up a percentage of the national population, just like everyone else.
As with most stereotypes, there is an element of truth behind the prejudice. Research has shown that certain drugs and/or excessive alcohol intake significantly increase the risk of developing anxiety and/or depression, alongside other mental illnesses. It is also true that a difficult upbringing, childhood trauma and relationship struggles can also make an individual more vulnerable to later mental health difficulties. However, there is also a HUGE percentage of the general population struggling with their mental health for less than obvious reasons.
Mental illness, just like the Common Cold or Hayfever, doesn’t discriminate when it strikes – it can affect anyone, at any point in their lives. It doesn’t pick its victims by analysing their financial or political situation, looking at whether or not they’re young, old, heterosexual, homosexual, British, vegetarian or anything else. It strikes whoever, whenever and at whatever point in their lives.
I think that some of the fear about voicing the fact that I have struggled with my mental health comes from the worry that other people will instantly judge me for something that I’m not. Those who know me are aware that I’ve been lucky with regard to my home life, upbringing and financial situation; I had a happy childhood, an excellent education and great friends. On paper, I’m a student who has achieved highly at a prestigious University, who throws herself into extra-curricular activities and who has a wide range of skills gained through previous employment. However, if a stranger were to leaf through my medical notes, things wouldn’t be quite so attractive. Without knowing me, who would actively look to be friends with, date or even employ, someone who has a list of mental health diagnoses, who has spent time in a psychiatric ward and who has been treated under mental health services for the last six years? Suddenly, when you add this into the mix, the initial impression changes somewhat (and that’s speaking as someone who knows me very well!).
We’re all guilty of formulating impressions or opinions of others before we know the whole truth and more often than not, they’ll lead us to shy away from things that we’ve merely misjudged. (Obviously, if we’re walking down a dark alley alone and bump into a stranger, these instant impressions can be pretty helpful, so don’t dismiss them entirely!). However, mental illness isn’t always that obvious and often, those who are struggling the most, are those who wear the biggest smiles and who seem to be on top of everything, whilst going out of their way to help other people. Unlike physical illnesses, it’s easier to disguise a mental health problem and brush off the symptoms with excuses. It’s important though, to look behind closed doors and acknowledge not only that which is on the
However, mental illness isn’t always that obvious and often, those who are struggling the most, are those who wear the biggest smiles and who seem to be on top of everything, whilst going out of their way to help other people. Unlike physical illnesses, it’s easier to disguise a mental health problem and brush off the symptoms with excuses. It’s important though, to look behind closed doors and acknowledge not only that which is on the surface but the potential struggle which is being hidden away.