By Adya Choudhary
“At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction.” – Michelle Obama
I came across this quote the other day as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed. It’s an interesting idea, to liken a mental illness to a physical one. Depression and anxiety seem far removed from a broken arm or leg – but, at their core, are they really that different?
It begins with a fall, an infection, or a trauma of some kind. It can be an event, a painful memory or a specific trigger that brings up an emotional side of you – one you may have never known existed. Or maybe it was something that had already been there, dormant: an infection waiting to manifest.
The pain of living with a mental illness is not always visible. There is no blood, no wound to be monitored and remarked over. Colleagues and friends might notice you’ve missed one too many lectures, one too many social gatherings. They might track the one too many mornings, days and nights you’ve slept in. Or they might not.
Sometimes, there are no signs for the outside world. Only you can understand how you feel, and how much it hurts. There’s no mark on your body to tell people about what you’re going through. However, just because your symptoms cannot be measured on a thermometer or with a blood test doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Your pain is real. Your pain is there.
And whether it’s a superficial laceration or social anxiety, covering it up and hoping it’ll ‘get better with time’ has never been a good approach. No matter how many Band-Aids you plaster over your gash or how many painkillers you take, the wound is still going to be there. No matter how much you try spending time with others, how much you try to go outside and be yourself again, concealing a mental illness isn’t going to make things any better.
From the way they begin to the way they present, there isn’t much of a difference between mental and physical illnesses. So why do we approach the treatment of them differently? Why do we hide away our mental health problems like they’re a dirty little secret, something to be ashamed of, yet having the flu is nothing we’d be ashamed to tell people? And why is it that, when we do open up about how we’re feeling, too often we’re asked if we’ve “tried being happy”?
Our mental and physical health are equally important for our wellbeing, so shouldn’t our approach to treating them be the same as well?
If someone tells you that their mental health is suffering, don’t tell them to “try to change your frame of mind.” Asking them if they’ve tried being happy isn’t going to help. You would never ask a person with asthma if they’ve tried not having asthma; why would you do the same for depression? Mental illnesses are not a lifestyle choice. They’re an illness which can be treated. Implying that it is the sufferer’s fault for having an illness is no way to resolve these issues. It’s no way to treat a patient, or a friend, or yourself.
Instead, give yourself time for healing and get the help you deserve. Open up about your problems to yourself and to others, and give yourself time. Don’t be ashamed about getting professional help and talking to your doctor; you wouldn’t be hesitant to approach them about having the flu or breaking your leg. Why be nervous here?
And give yourself time.
Give yourself time off to let the wound heal and the bruises get better. The long, slow process of healing will take time and care. It requires patience and love and acceptance. Give yourself all of that. Take time off work, school, and other commitments for a while if you need it.
Once you’ve recovered, you might be left with a scar: just as a broken arm can leave a scar where a bone has gone through skin, or a deep cut can leave a red line on an arm or a leg. The scars are nothing to hide or to be ashamed of.
Embrace the scars; they are a reminder of what you went through and of who you are. Look at your scars as a reminder that you can heal. And give the others who see your scars the hope and power that they will overcome their illnesses too.