“Some of the most extraordinary people I have ever met are suffering from some form of a mental illness. Their pain forces them to be honest. It doesn’t get any clearer than that.” – Helen Perry
When I read this quote from Helen Perry I wondered if it was in fact true, that do people living with a mental illness are honest about their illness and if it, does this come out in their conversations? I know for me it hasn’t been until the last 12-18 months that I have started to be honest about my depression, and started to talk about it about how it makes me feel, and how it has impacted upon my life.
There are many reasons, and barriers that prevent those living with a mental illness from being honest about it, and talking about their illness. We live in a strange society where we are quiet open about a diagnosis of some of our diseases and illnesses, yet when one is diagnosed with a mental illness we shrink into our cloud of secrecy brought on by shame, uncertainty, and the big one stigma.
Even before any diagnosis with a mental illness there is an inherent culture amongst society that says that you just don’t talk about ‘IT’. It is this culture that has fed the stigma surrounding mental illness, to not only prevent those with these illnesses to be open and honest about their illness but also has virtually caused a widespread blackout of mental illness in schools, workplaces, and the community in general. While there are efforts by many Australian organisations like BeyondBlue, R U OK?, Headspace, and Sane Australia to get the conversation started about mental illness there is still along way to go in making it easier for those with a mental illness.
The silence around mental illness increases even more when you are or have been an in-patient in a psychiatric ward or facility. The portrayal of psychiatric facilities in the media, in TV shows, and movies and to a certain extent the reputation of these facilities in the past have left a strong stigma attached to this level of care.
For me, my silence about my depression started well before I knew what depression was when I was raised in a household where you didn’t talk about your problems or your feelings, for what reason I still don’t know. Not only did this mean I wouldn’t talk about my problems at home, I didn’t talk about them full stop. On the few occasions that I did manage to say something to someone that I wasn’t ok, my Mother found out, and any hope of conversation about what was going on for me was shut down. The result for me was a teenage life of punishing myself – starving myself, cutting myself, and hiding my tears and feelings from the world – a harsh environment for any teenager. So later on, as an adult, when I was finally diagnosed with severe depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety it was only natural that I would be silent about it.
The inbred tendency for me to be silent about my problems, affected me in my ability to talk to counsellors, and psychologists about my depression, compounding the problem, and leaving me in a position where most treatment was not an option for me because I simply couldn’t talk about my problems, and my life. This continued on and became worse when in my work environments my sick leave would lead to some talk about my mental illness, my tendency to stay quiet about it was further engrained into my behaviour when work colleagues started to use my depression against me.
You don’t progress very far living with depression when you can’t talk about your illness, after all one of the keys to treatment is therapy. So instead of living with depression I suffered for many years in a silent world filled with shame, stigma, discrimination, and bullying. Leading to several major depressive episodes, suicide attempts, and a long and very lonely battle.
It wasn’t until I was an in-patient in a private psychiatric facility that I started to come out of my silent corner and start to talk about my illness, and the parts of my life that had contributed to my illness. Firstly, when you are around other people, who just like you suffer from a mental illness it is a lot easier to talk and relate to each other. Secondly, the environments within these facilities allows for a more open talking environment between nurses, doctors, and patients. Thirdly, with group therapy being a compulsory component of treatment with patients, just like you, on topics that are about your illness, and related to other common factors contributing to your illness, you learn to communicate about your illness, about yourself, with others. It has been these factors that have allowed me to come out of my silent past and start to openly talk about my mental illness, and the impacts it has had on me.
I am confident if I had not received this treatment in this manner I would still be silent, and I hate to think what depression would have done to me. Without this treatment I certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog, and undertaking some of the projects I intend to start if it wasn’t for this therapy, and it’s Abu
Ility to help me talk,a nd change my mindset that despite the stigma you should still talk about mental illness, not just on an individual level, but as an advocate, a mentor, and a living example so that those in our community living with mental illness can feel that they have a voice.