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Mental illness is hard to see and even harder to talk about

My internalized stigma about depression has been my biggest hurdle on the path to recovery

nancy-chen-living-with-my-depression

It’s Wednesday evening. I’m sitting in bed and have just made myself a chocolate chip brownie mug cake because it was a rough day and I need comfort food. The warm cup rests on my lap, right in front of the bright screen of my laptop, which I blankly stare into.

About a week ago, I signed up to write another article for this beautiful publication and out of all the topics I could have picked, I chose to write about mental health. It would be easy, I thought. Dealing with depression and anxiety has been on my mind for the best part of the last months, so it would be no problem to write about some of those thoughts, right?

Not quite.

October 10 was World Mental Health Day and Twitter was buzzing with people sharing their struggles, expressing comfort and support, and giving out virtual hugs. It really reminded me of how even though our experiences may feel isolating, there is always someone who is going through similar struggles, who can relate. Simply talking about mental health is so important to raise awareness, decrease the stigma surrounding it, and show the many facets and aspects and angles of it. Speaking up creates community and a mutual exchange of comfort of support.

And yet, talking about mental health can be incredibly difficult. For me, one big obstacle is internalized stigma. My own mind messes with me constantly, it tells me that what I’m experiencing is not that bad, that I should just get over it, that I don’t have my shit together and am just a disorganized person with no discipline to pull myself together.

It tells me that I don’t fit the stereotype of the “typical depressed person”, who is unable to get out of bed in the morning, becomes completely isolated from the outside world and has suicidal thoughts. But I can get out of bed in the morning, I can clean myself up, make breakfast, go to classes, meet my friends afterwards, get my assignments done on time and still love life too much to think about suicide. I function, therefore I couldn’t possibly be depressed. Or so my depressed brain tells me.

Because my depression is not visible, it becomes difficult to talk about it. I feel like people might think I just want attention, that I’m making this up to be interesting, that I’m making too much of a deal out of it, because after all it’s not that bad and other people have it worse, right? The simple solution to it all is to look on the bright side and count your blessings and just be happy.

My own mind messes with me constantly, it tells me that what I’m experiencing is not that bad.

I have a roof over my head and food whenever I want it, warm clothes for the winter, a super supportive family, and amazing friends. I’m on exchange at a great university in one of the most beautiful cities of the world and I can financially afford this experience. I couldn’t possibly be one of the luckiest people on the planet and still be depressed — or at least that’s the story my depression tells.

So ungrateful and selfish! The depression in my mind continues.

Another reason talking about mental health is often difficult for me is that I’m a very rational person — but I can’t rationally explain my depression. As I described before, I have no rational reason to be depressed, there was no traumatic experience to trigger my depression. Because I rely on rationality so much, I can become super confused by what my mind is telling me.

I know that depression cannot simply be cured by being happy, I know that I’m not making this up, I know that I’m usually a very organized and disciplined person — and yet my mind sometimes tells me the opposite. It’s hard for me to understand if depression is really a part of me or actually separate from me.

Recently, I ended my long-distance relationship because I felt like it was sucking energy from me that I desperately needed elsewhere without providing any happiness in return. Only now, I’m not sure if it wasn’t actually depression that was consuming all my energy, not the relationship.

Was I depressed because of this relationship, or was I unhappy with the relationship because of depression? I have a lot of question to answer, and destigmatizing mental health topics has to be the first step.

So yes, talking about mental health can be extremely difficult — and yet, I highly encourage you to do it anyway. For me, speaking out has had a hugely positive effect on how I view and deal with my depression.

I first opened up about it in a post on my personal blog last month, and immediately messages from friends and acquaintances came pouring in, saying that they knew exactly what I meant, that they had or still were experiencing very similar things. They encouraged me to get professional help and reassured me that reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. I’d like to encourage you to do the same thing.

Talk about mental health, whether you speak to a close friend or loved one or a counsellor or your dog about it, whether you write about it in your diary or publish a post on your blog or on social media — just talk about it. Because you’re not alone and you don’t have to fight this battle alone, there is help, there is community, and we truly are all in this together.

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