There are many negative traits that someone can have in this day and age. Some are debatable, others less so. People can be lazy, rude, arrogant, nosy, greedy and so forth. The list could go on, but there’s only one negative trait that really concerns me, and that is the fact that mental illness is considered one.
Despite all our ‘acceptance’ and ‘acknowledgement’ of mental illness, at least in TV shows, it is somehow still categorised as a weakness. As a flaw of character, something you are lacking. The only thing I’m lacking is serotonin or a constructive childhood, so I don’t see why I am being viewed as weaker for having a mental illness.
When I hear that people think mental illness is a choice, I always wonder… why would I ever choose to feel so rubbish all the time? I don’t think my mental illness makes me special, and I would rather live a life free of it. I appreciate the growth it has given me and the resilience I developed from it. Still, no one would choose this pain and difficulty, especially when it results in people categorising you as weak.
Mental illness is not a choice as it comes from dozens of possible influences. It can be biological, environmental, social learning and more. You can’t pinpoint what it is as it is this spaghetti bowl of possibilities, and each strand is so woven into the other. You can even have everything go right, the ‘perfect’ upbringing and genes and more, and develop depression or an eating disorder. It’s just too complicated even to trace, and you don’t get many benefits from looking deeply into that.
If you really wanted to play the choice game, you could almost consider physical illnesses to be more of a choice, as they can be more closely linked to environmental factors such as smoking, poor diet and more. But we don’t do that, and I would never wish to blame someone for their disease. My point merely is that illness is never considered a choice, and the same should apply to mental illnesses. No one chooses their illness, despite their actions or the causes.
The effects of mental illness can be seen in brain scans, blood work and more. But we shouldn’t even need that; instead, we should believe what we are told. Someone is struggling, and they are opening up about that, which is all the evidence that I require from them.
It isn’t a weakness as it is so far outside of their control; the only control they have is battling it, which is a strength in itself.
According to the NIMH, approximately one in five US adults has a mental illness, and there is a wide array of them to choose from. But no matter what their diagnosis, this is not a weakness of their character. With so many people struggling with a mental illness, how do we still categorise it as a flaw, as an indication of their strength? That would be like labelling a fifth of the population as wrong, as a defect model that should be negated in any opinions they may hold.
One in five people is struggling, yet I doubt you would see that from your social circle. Because as we continue to portray mental illness as a fatal flaw, we spread shame around it and make it something you can’t discuss. If you don’t tell others about your struggle for fear of being labelled weak, someone else is likely doing the same.
But there is no greater relief than sharing your pain and being not only heard but understood. Being diagnosed with BPD, I felt so fortunate to discover that a friend had been diagnosed similarly months prior. Sharing my symptoms and struggles, and hearing that I was far from alone in them, was a relief that a mere diagnosis could never provide. We could swap our troubles, get adjusted advice and know that we’re not crazy in how we feel. If I hadn’t told her about my BPD, which was tempting given the stigma for it, I would never have this revelation which was so vital to my recovery.
It is always your choice whether to share your struggle, but if you choose not to for fear of seeming weak, consider the following first:
Do you really believe that other people will view it as a weakness, or are you the one who thinks that?
I won’t go into all the things that make a weak person, as I’m sure that you could come up with better examples yourself. I will merely say that doing horrible things by choice says so much than someone who struggles due to their mental illness. That choosing to be selfish and unkind is worse than someone who is trying their best despite the difficulties presented to them.
There are so many wonderful things about people, and their mental illness does not detract from that. It is not a weakness to be hidden and whispered about; it is part of the load they carry. It doesn’t make them a worse candidate for hiring, a terrible partner or an unreliable friend. We all have our baggage, of different sizes and weights, but that does not take away from the good of us.
Imagine that you were to have two race tracks. One is covered in hurdles, pits and barbed wire. The other is pretty smooth, maybe one low hurdle to hop over. You have a runner complete each of them, which one would you consider to be a stronger runner for having finished it? Would you think the runner who ran the difficult track to be weaker if he is a few seconds slower?
A mental illness is not a sign of weakness, far from it, for it is actually a sign of strength. You have these added hurdles thrust upon you, and I am sure you never asked for them. But you’re still here; you are still going. You have the added weight day by day, and you trudge on. That is nothing to be ashamed of; in fact, it is something you should be proud of. The only reason we should avoid mentioning mental illnesses to others is that it might come across as bragging, as we’re showing exactly how bad-ass we are.
We need to move past the shame of mental illness, and that’s a shame we also comply in carrying. You don’t have to tell anyone about your mental illness if you don’t want to, but don’t do that for fear of seeming weak. By believing this, you perpetuate the idea that it is weak. It is far from weak, and you should not feel ashamed of the burden you were given. You are strong, even if only because you are still here today. Every day that you get up and give life your best shot is a sign of your strength. Every day that you manage only to shower or stay on the couch is still indicative of your strength, because you are here, and I am so proud of you for that.
Recognise your strength, that is the first step because if you believe in the strength of mental illness, others will have no choice but to do the same.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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