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January 04, 2021

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Mental Illness

With most people suffering one way or the other, there is greater understanding and acceptance of mental illness. Still, some important things remain unsaid.

by Grace Wiroreno

I think 2020 is such an awful year for everyone in the entire planet that this is probably the first year in my 19 years of having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder that when I announce that I am going through a depression, the general reaction is: “Don’t we all, girl?”.

Yet, one good thing about this year is that mental health awareness has become a trending topic that isn’t going away lately. This is both good news and bad news for those of us who have mental health conditions and/or illnesses.

The good news is now people are more aware and embracing. We still have a lot more work to do, but it seems like the general public is beginning to have an understanding of how important mental health is, and that conditions such as depression and anxiety are real illnesses.

The bad news is more and more people are self-diagnosing from Google, or worse, non-professionals are diagnosing their social media followers based on their experiences and Google. And then, there are also those who are properly and professionally diagnosed are starting to see that they can use their conditions as a crutch or excuse for their bad behavior and/or irresponsibility. Instead of working on getting better, they take full advantage of society’s more accepting and embracing attitude towards their conditions.

As someone who was diagnosed in the early 00s, when society wasn’t so open and accepting that I had to hide my condition from even my closest friends for fear of being rejected, I am really glad that we have come this far. I love that now I can openly reveal that I am bipolar to my friends without fearing that I would become a pariah. So don’t get me wrong, I am all for mental health awareness and education. I think the more people know and understand, the more knowledge they have, the better it is for those of us who have mental health conditions.

Also read: BTS and How Idols Help with Your Mental Health

However, sometimes there are some messages that we don’t communicate in our efforts to boost mental health awareness and to get more and more people to accept and embrace those with mental illness. It’s not that we don’t want to communicate these messages, sometimes we just forget to remind people what we think they already know.

So what don’t we talk about when we talk about mental illness?

1. We don’t talk about how the condition of our mental health does not define our moral values and ethics.

I don’t know if you are aware of this, but the hypomanic state of a bipolar person often involves risky behavior, hypersexuality, grandiosity, euphoria and some even go so far as psychotic episodes.

Obviously, those things I’ve mentioned above mean that when I’m hypomanic I can engage in behaviors that are harmful to myself and others. So, yes, I’ve hurt people and I’ve made bad decisions, but it doesn’t absolve me of my conscience and the consequences of my actions. I have lost friends. I have broken trusts. I have had to make amends. And even though I am working to forgive myself, I am still living with the guilt of my past actions.

You may have depression, or bipolar disorder, or any other mental illness, but your moral compass remains the same regardless of your condition. Those who shirk away responsibilities and blame them on their conditions are simply crappy human beings, regardless of whether or not they have mental illness. Mike Tyson for example, may have mental illness but he is still a rapist. Having a mental illness isn’t an excuse for being a violent, abusive person. Having a mental illness isn’t an excuse for any bad behavior. Your morality has nothing to do with your condition.

Also read: Mental Health Issue a Feminist Issue Too

2. We don’t talk about how exhausting it is having to explain ourselves and our conditions to those “supportive people” especially when we are going through an episode.

I think it’s truly great that people are more open and embracing of our conditions now, but, hey, newly woke and supportive people, do us all a favor and just do your homework. There are so many resources online for you to get information about mental illness in general. On Instagram alone, you can probably find like thousands of accounts dedicated to mental health awareness and education. Have you all heard of Google? Or, maybe take a class in (my) online learning platform.

Just don’t keep asking your friends who are depressed or having an anxiety attack to explain what they’re going through. Let them rest. Send them food. Tell them you’re thinking of them and ready to listen if they want to talk. Be ready to send them funny memes if need be. Don’t ask them to explain to you what depression or anxiety is, what it feels like and what they’re going through. They’re already exhausted from fighting their demons. Help them fight.

3. We don’t talk about how constant it is.

Here’s a pro-tip for you newbies: mental illness is not really like the flu. It’s more like diabetes. It can last years. It can last decades. Some mental illnesses are lifelong conditions, so even though it can be managed and people with mental illness can go on to have rich, productive lives, it doesn’t really go away.

When I’m in my depressive state, it is grueling, and can take weeks even months before I finally am back to the happy middle. This last episode has lasted for almost two months and counting. It is no fun to be around me all the time when I’m like this.

So if you want to be a supportive friend or loved one to anyone with a mental illness, please understand that no matter what you do sometimes their episode just keeps going. If you want to be there, you need to be fully prepared. You need to know what you’re getting yourself into.

Again, do your homework. If you can’t be there don’t promise to. If you can’t stay for the long haul, don’t say “I will always be here for you” in an effort to be a good friend. Trust me we all know this isn’t for everyone. You don’t need to over-promise.

Also read: 5 Simple Ways to Approach People With Mental Health Problems

4.We don’t talk (enough) about how strong and brave mental health survivors are, and how they are not to be pitied.

It’s great that we as a society are now more understanding of mental illness, but sometimes it does lead us to pity those who are struggling with it. It’s so sad, we’d say, oh you poor soul. Just… no.

Those of us who have mental illness don’t want your pity. If you want to show your support, don’t pity us. Instead, remind us that we are strong and we are brave and we have fought this battle before and won, so we will win again. Don’t baby us. Don’t try to shield us from the harsh truths of life. Life is hard, and it is even harder for us with this condition.

I, for one, believe that if I am given this condition then, that means Someone Up There knows I have enough strength to make it through to the other side. Instead of feeling sorry for us, tell us we can make it. Because we can. We just need help.

As someone with a lifelong mental illness, I am encouraged by the progress we’ve made in mental health awareness, especially this year when the world collectively has a mental breakdown. But as these conversations on mental health start to catch on, let’s remember to talk about the things that we don’t normally talk about, because these conversations we neglect to have are sometimes the most important ones.

Grace Wiroreno is the Founder & CEO of Belajar Tanpa Bertemu, an online learning platform that offers practical knowledge and skills for SMEs, as well as wellness and mental health education. She is also a sometimes contributor to Magdalene under the pseudonym Binky Bee, a freelance copywriter, a procrastinating author, and (lately) a cheesy iPhone notes app poet. A mom of one dog and five cats, she used to dream of moving to Montreal so she can get Universal Healthcare, but has given up that dream in light of the pandemic. You can get to know her on Instagram @binkyandthecats and @belajartanpabertemu.