At this stage, whether it’s a wise idea to add maladaptive daydreaming to the DSM is still a bit unclear. It’s true that there are practical aspects to doing so: more funding, more research, and more treatment options. But the label of mental illness isn’t a comfortable one to wear. We still aren’t at a stage in our society where we can look at mental illness without a stigma attached.
But how to we overcome this? How do we make mental illness something that the everyday person can understand? How can we prevent those of us who suffer from becoming ostracized by our friends and relatives? To answer these questions, we have to first examine why a stigma exists in the first place.
Why Do People Deny Mental Illness?
Imagine you have a heavy weight on your back. Although you can see and feel it, it’s invisible to everyone else. Whenever you spend time with friends and family, they all notice how you’re slouching. Some even ask you, “Why aren’t you standing up straight?” but when you tell them about the weight on your back, they look at you strangely. After all, there’s no problem as far as they can see.
Perhaps you’re just lacking confidence, they think, or maybe you’re just not trying hard enough. So they tell you that if only you put in a little more effort, you could stand up straight like everyone else.
Mental illness is the weight on your back that no one else can see. But because the people around us can’t perceive it, they don’t think it exists. Or if they do, they think that you just need to “try harder” and your problem will go away. It’s even worse if, on the outside, you still appear to function somewhat normally. Others will come to the conclusion that your problem can’t be that bad if you can still manage everyday tasks.
But as anyone with mental illness knows, mental illness is very real and no amount of positive thinking is going to make it disappear. But if the people around us don’t understand this, this stigma will continue to exist.
Why Stigmas Can Hurt
While this stigma may not seem like a big deal to some, it is very serious, and it has real world consequences for the people who suffer.
You already have negative thoughts going through your head about feeling like a failure because you can’t meet others’ expectations (or even your own). But when you’re also getting discouraging comments about how your pain is all in your imagination, it’s a serious blow to your self-esteem.
What’s worse, the stigma makes it much harder to even ask for help. Even getting to the doctor’s office is a challenge in itself. There’s no guarantee that you can even find a psychiatrist or therapist who is sensitive to your needs. After enough frustrating attempts to get others to understand, you start to believe that you’d have better luck dealing with your issues on your own. And so you continue to suffer in silence. Unfortunately, that can make mental illness even harder to treat.
How We Can Overcome the Stigma
I wish I could say it’s a simple task to change the public perception of mental illness, but honestly, I think we’re in for a long battle. As long as so many misconceptions exist, the struggle won’t be easy. So much of it relies on other people and how willing they are to examining their own ignorance and lack of empathy. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely hopeless. There are still steps that we can take to fight the stigma.
1. Know your truth.
We can’t expect others to validate what we feel if we’re not willing to do the same for ourselves. Although it’s hard when you’re facing criticism, it’s essential not to invalidate your feelings. Your experiences are real. The challenges that you face every day are real. The pain from mental illness is just as valid as that of any other condition.
There will be times when other people will try to dismiss your experiences. Don’t let them. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground.
One way we can help others to understand is by sharing our stories. Granted, this isn’t an easy task for anyone, especially if we fear being judged. But the more we’re able to articulate what it is we go through, the easier it will be for others to understand.
3. Speak up.
When you’re struggling with a mental illness, you probably can’t perform at the same level as everyone else. It’s essential that you set boundaries for yourself. If you’re having a tough day and need some time to recharge, give yourself the freedom to do so. If you need specific accomodations, don’t be afraid to speak up. Your mental health is your first priority. Remember: you can’t meet anyone else’s needs unless you meet yours first.
Will there always be a stigma around mental illness? I don’t know. I hope not. But I believe that the more people talk openly about mental illness, the less scary it will seem.