I was meeting with two coworkers this week to explain what I would need from them in order to do something they were asking of me.
For context, I explained that I have had to put a lot of boundaries in place lately in order to continue functioning. I said that last week I was so depressed that on Friday morning I couldn’t get out of bed to go to work.
It was a simple statement, and they took it as it was and we moved on with the conversation.
But as we were leaving the meeting, one of the guys said, “Hey – I’m really sorry about your…” (long pause) “…situation. I’ll be praying about…” (another long pause)
I smiled and offered the words he was missing: “My mental illness?”
There was immediate and visible panic on his face.
“No, no!” He said. “That’s not what I’m saying!”
“Well,” I said, hopefully gently, “that’s what it is. But thank you.”
And I walked away.
Now, because I know this coworker and trust and respect him, I completely understand that he was trying to be kind and avoid making me feel judged or shamed.
But I also know that reserving the term “mental illness” for the certifiably insane is how we end up with stigmas and shame surrounding things like depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.
To some of you, this feels incredibly obvious. To others, not so much. And I get that – not judging. Let’s just talk about it.
When I say, “mental illness,” what do you picture?
If you picture straightjackets and padded walls, you might want to revisit your definition. According to the Mayo clinic, “Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions – disorders that affect your mood, thinking, and behavior.”
This includes, but is not limited to, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and addictive behavior. Which means that mental illness is everything from needing Xanax to needing a straightjacket.
And if you don’t call it an illness, if you call it a “situation,” or really anything other than an illness, you place the source of the situation back in the hands of the affected person.
Let’s say I come into work with a cold. I’m sneezing, blowing my nose, my throat is sore, and my head hurts.
You say, “I’m sorry about your…situation.”
To clarify, I say, “My being sick?”
And you don’t want me to feel ashamed of being sick, so you say, “No, no! You’re not sick! Sick is cancer or tuberculosis. You’re not sick!”
Because why would you be afraid that I would be ashamed of being kind of sick? The natural leap, even if you didn’t mean this, is that you believe there is something inherently shameful about being sick.
But if you think about it, you know that the fact that I am depressed is not inherently shameful. I’m not doing anything wrong. In fact, I am actively dealing with my depression, through multiple doctors, psychiatrists, counselors, and medications.
But I’m still ill. There is something wrong with me, despite my best efforts. And I’m not ashamed of that or even all that angry about it. It’s simply my reality, and I’m dealing with it.
I’m mentally ill. And I’m fine with saying that.
Will you join me in calling it what it is?