How many times have we heard the phrase “Oh my God I’m gonna kill myself!” uttered by someone who was only making a dramatic statement about being stressed or exasperated?
How many times have you said it? How many times have you joked with your friends about it? How many times have you made light of serious mental health issues, like calling someone bipolar or psycho or claiming to be OCD about keeping your room clean?
Probably more times than you think.
And have you ever thought about how it affected the people around you at the time? Like the girl sitting at the table next to you or the boy behind you in line at Starbucks? Or maybe even your close friend?
When I was a freshman in high school, my world started to implode. I started cutting; I couldn’t focus in school and I constantly thought about killing myself.
But you would never know that looking at me.
On the outside, I was the girl who was always laughing and joking with her friends, who was always smiling, never letting on about the internal struggle she was facing.
I was sure I was alone in my plight. My friend joked about slitting her throat before a midterm. I laughed and wondered how much of a freak she’d think I was for actually wanting to kill myself. My friend Kathy was a lot like me, in more ways than I knew at the time. She was always joking around, and every day she had a new corny joke to tell me. We made sarcastic remarks together and then we would bust into laughter. She was one of the best parts of my day. And I had no idea what was really going on underneath the seemingly happy exterior.
In January of 2012 Kathy hung herself in her room.
The next morning, my mom broke the news to me, and I didn’t believe it. There was no way she could have killed herself; just yesterday we were laughing and joking around in the cafeteria. But just like me, her inner world was imploding and she never let on.
The months that followed were filled with confusion, anger, grief and unbearable sadness. I developed an eating disorder to cope. I was spiraling deeper and deeper into the darkness. My class bonded, and we all shared with each other our struggles with self-harm, depression, and eating disorders. We were all struggling this whole time, but no one talked about it until one of our own did the thing so many of us had thought of doing ourselves. I felt less alone. The people around me who seemed so shallow before, who seemed without problems, actually knew what I was going through.
Suddenly everyone became vocal about suicide awareness, tweeting suicide hotlines and sharing posts on Facebook about the warning signs. We stopped making jokes about suicide. It seemed like everyone was eager to raise awareness.
By the time a year had passed, the statuses, shares and posts had dwindled down to nothing.
Why does this always happen? We wait until someone kills themselves to start the discussion about mental illness and suicide awareness. Typically a few months pass and the discussion ceases. We all share a post so that we don’t feel as if we did nothing. We don’t acknowledge our own experiences because we are ashamed. Most of the time, we don’t even add a caption.
Since the topic of mental illness and suicide is so taboo in our society, it’s no wonder that people are hesitant to reach out for help. It is rare to hear of someone standing up and saying “I have this mental illness; you are not alone.” Or “I have tried to kill myself; I survived and you can too.” It is perfectly understandable why. We think, what if people judge me? What if future employers see this about me? What if potential love interests see it and lose interest? What if nobody stands with me?
We shame people with mental illnesses. Every time we joke about mental illness, we silence someone. We make it harder for a person struggling with suicidal thoughts to reach out for help. As a person with a metal illness, when we hear our peers joking about killing themselves over a homework assignment or making light of serious mental illnesses, it amplifies the feeling that we are freaks, that nobody will understand us, that we will be judged and that we will remain isolated.
When you call someone that you don’t like a psycho, a person who has actually experienced psychosis feels horrible about themselves.
When you joke about being “OCD” about keeping your room clean, someone who has OCD hears you, and thinks no one will ever understand or take them seriously.
When I heard my coworkers joking about bulimia and self-induced vomiting last week, I felt like a total freak and a total outsider. Despite being in a good place in my recovery and having a good support system around me, I felt horrible about myself. My four-year long struggle, the thing that took so much from me and my family, the thing that takes the lives of so many, was the punchline of their joke.
The stigma, fear and ignorance surrounding mental illnesses is reinforced by the media. If you get your information from mainstream media, you probably believe every person with schizophrenia is a killer, people with eating disorders are vain and people with depression can “snap out of it.” Most people still use the word “bipolar” to describe someone who changes their mind a lot or has normal mood swings.
The only way to stop this stigma is to educate people. Unfortunately, many people don’t acquire this knowledge until they are required to because mental illness has entered their life, either through themselves or a family member. Because of the shame and stigma, these people are hesitant to share what they have learned.
My private, all-girls high school had plenty of time for assemblies on bullying, women’s empowerment, and writing in code, but not one assembly that addressed mental health despite having a member of their student body die by suicide. Why? Does it take away from the prestige of the school to discuss some things? Will funders be more hesitant to donate if it is acknowledged that mental illness exists in the school? Would parents hesitate to send their daughters to the school in the future? Would the school be blamed for the student’s death?
I can only imagine that when Kathy heard people around her, including our friends, casually joking about suicide, she felt exactly as I did: alone, misunderstood, silenced and like an outsider. I can sympathize with the shame she must have felt, and I know all too well the incredible amount of energy it takes to act like you’re okay when you aren’t.
I never told Kathy what was going on in my life because I didn’t want to ruin our carefree, jokes-only friendship. Had I been honest, maybe she would have felt safe enough to be honest with me.
My name is Taylor.
I am no longer suffering from, but am simply living with and managing bipolar disorder and anxiety, and I am recovering from an eating disorder.
I have lived through my darkest hours when I didn’t think it was possible to live through them. I have suffered immensely. I have done things I am not proud of in an effort to cope and to escape. I have experienced dark depression and crippling anxiety. I have a lot of scars. I have cried at the dinner table.
However, I have also gotten out of bed when I thought I couldn’t. I have gone to jobs crying and hyperventilating, but I have gone. I forced myself to eat hundreds of meals because I know that’s what’s good for me. I have waited in agony to feel okay again, and now I finally do.
I am here to tell you that you are not alone.
You are not a freak.
Someone else’s cruel and ignorant words do not define you.
You are an incredible, brave and strong human being. You are worthy of everything that is good in this world.
Do not be afraid to reach out for the help that you deserve. Do not be afraid to ask for what you need.
There is an end to this pain.
There is life beyond this pain and struggle, and you need to be alive to see it.
Tackling the Stigma of Mental Health in the South Asian Community.
The Stigma Around Mental Illness is Hurting All of Us.
Author: Taylor Simpson
Apprentice Editor: Pavita Singh/Editor: Catherine Monkman
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