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Surviving Mental Health Stigma

A couple of weeks ago I volunteered to distribute sanitary products and a hot meal to the unhoused community of Washington D.C. through the impactful and committed organization, The Distant Relatives Project. The experience produced a mix of emotions. I felt heartbroken to see so many individuals in need, the worst of it was learning that a large number of unhoused individuals who struggle with mental health issues do not have access to professional help. It is a crisis.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that I’m someone who can become overwhelmed fairly easily. Sometimes, I think it developed in my adulthood, but maybe it’s just something I never noticed or had the words to identify as a child. Whatever the case, being overwhelmed negatively impacts my mental health, and I want to talk about it to address the stigma around it.
Until a year ago, I did not equate May with Mental Health Awareness Month (MHAM). Flowers, sunshine, summer break, and my birthday most definitely, but not mental health. My battle with depression completely opened my eyes to mental illness and mental health as a whole, and I can confidently say that one month, even one year, dedicated to the topic does not do it justice. But to be fair, it is a hopeful and actionable start.
Allow me to join the chorus and say it’s Mental Health Awareness Month. Each year, the mental health community comes together during May to amplify the discussions around mental health to reduce the stigma of mental illness and show people they’re not alone in their struggles.
I am grateful for the podcasts that help me maintain mental wellness, but first, this background story: In April of last year, while the world was just beginning to open back up, I was experiencing the bleak fallout from a traumatic breakup. Much like when I was at my lowest low, battling depression later that summer, I was constantly searching for ways to forget. One of my favorite ways to accomplish this was going for long, and I mean long, walks. I would put on my shoes, walk down my apartment stairs and just walk. Sometimes three miles, sometimes five, and nine or 10 on the bad days.
It’s one of the original facets of mental health stigma: the belief that negative thoughts are a choice. I’d wager nearly everyone has had someone tell them that at one point or another. Mental health stigma can manifest in many complex ways, but that idea is rather straightforward and simple. Despite that, it’s a truly grating form of mental health stigma and one I encountered again last week.
Journaling is one way I fight mental health self-stigma and is, fortunately, becoming increasingly popular in today's world. Used as a method for releasing negativity, spurring creativity, and everything in between, journaling can create a safe space for many people who practice it.
I, like many, have been called brave for sharing my experiences with mental health struggles. It’s always sat weirdly with me as I’ve never seen myself in that light. I’m not brave for sharing my mental health struggles. I can see how folks would see bravery in speaking up when mental health stigma is so rampant. Yet, the term still isn’t one I identify with. It doesn’t fit quite right.
It can be difficult to navigate the shifting views of mental health and the stigma surrounding it in an adaptive and dynamic world. There is a duality to the increase of safe spaces and acceptance regarding mental health. The exhausting truth is although some people in society may be ready to hear our stories, not everyone is.
Sadly, the news these days is headline after headline of troubling times and struggles for people—and I feel guilty about avoiding it. It’s a conundrum wherein I want to stay informed but must equally do what I can to protect my mental wellbeing. Another conundrum: watching the news can trigger anxiety, depression, and even obsessiveness in me, but avoiding the news triggers guilt.