Confronting Mental Health Stereotypes

Recently I have been seeing and reading a fair amount on mental illnesses (specifically watching the film Side Effects, reading American Salvage for university and The Millenium series for pleasure, as well as researching mental health for work). Then I saw this video by The Guardian where Eleanor Longden talks about her experience with mental illness. This has lead to some reflection on the way we as a society still treat the issue. Namely that fine line between the stereotypes in our society and real people needing help.

The boom in prescribing anti-depressants and  issue of people becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their lives has lead to an abuse of prescription medication, in the same way that others abuse alcohol or illegal drugs to cope. As a result of these issues, for some people, and in many portrayals, being depressed has also become ‘fashionable’ and the stereotype is often white middle-class teenagers or twenty-somethings who don’t know what to do with their emotions. Except this stereotype is very dangerous.

This is the image that was implanted in my own head as a teenager, during which time I had real emotional problems. I was told that my life was ‘good’, I was well-off and had no reason to feel or behave the way I did. I couldn’t even rationalise to myself why I felt that way. Adults around me swung from one extreme to another in their diagnose; one moment there would be nothing ‘wrong’ with me and the next I would be told I had borderline personality disorder or bi-polar. No-one stopped to talk about it with me though. Terms for mental illnesses were thrown at me as though there was something ‘wrong’ with me. Another dangerous stereotype. This was my choice: I was either just acting out or I was ‘crazy’.

The dangerous stereotypes around mental illness only serve to negate what people are feeling when, as a society, we should instead be giving them validation.

It’s only six or seven years later that I’m realising, with hindsight what was really going on. It wasn’t just hormones or puberty. I wasn’t being a drama queen. But there wasn’t anything ‘wrong’ with me either. I was suffering from mental health issues, as the NHS estimates that one in four of us will at some point in our lives. With adult experience to look back on what happened, I can recognise it and understand why; something that 14 year old me couldn’t. But the adults in my life should have. That’s why these stereotypes are so damaging, because only now do I feel I can talk about it. Even now though I still feel nervous that I might be judged, but I shouldn’t.

Just because I was a teenage girl, from a nice area, at a good school, it doesn’t mean my feelings and my problems were any less valid than someone else’s. If anyone had bothered to talk to me they might have learnt about the trauma I went through in my teens and they might have linked that to the issues I was having. Equally I’m not ‘crazy’, I have good days and bad days like everyone else; I work, study and live my life without anyone questioning my mental health, as I should.

From this comes my main point that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. The dangerous stereotypes around mental illness only serve to negate what people are feeling when, as a society, we should instead be giving them validation. Even if there is no apparent reason, diagnosis or trigger for someone’s mental illness, everyone can have their internal, mental struggles. I have friends whose lives I have truly believed were perfect. I have also seen these friends struggle emotionally, struggle to come to terms with things in their lives. We all have our demons, you probably just don’t know what they are.

So rather than making jokes and snide remarks about ‘attention-seeking teenagers who cut themselves’ or ‘housewives who are only depressed because they are bored’ we need to actually start helping these people. Rather than films like Side Effects which, though a brilliant film, reinforces ideas that these problems are just an act, we need more shows and films that tell real stories, more videos like Eleanor’s. In a society where mental health services are over-burdened, but funding is being cut, this is easier said than done. But asking someone how they feel, listening to them and most of all accepting what they say is the first step to the support they need.
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