“Hi, my name is Kate Finman, I am (20) years old and I have struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember.”
Every May, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I post on social media with this sentence as the start of the caption and write about my experience as a mentally ill human. It’s a small attempt to be vulnerable and start a conversation about mental illness, in hopes of ending the stigma against mental illness so that we, as a society, can improve how we discuss and treat people with mental health issues.
But this year, I didn’t post.
In February, I published a column about suicidal ideation. I was vulnerable and more open about an aspect of my depression than I ever had been. When I was writing it, I was nervous but excited to share parts of my story on a new platform and to contribute to the normalization of discussing such topics.
But I forgot to consider something I definitely wasn’t ready for: If you publish a column, other people — including family members — will read it (oops).
Things quickly spiraled. Family members, whom I hide my mental illness from or mask how debilitating my depression and anxiety can be from, began to call. I became consumed by shame of myself and my mentally ill reality — and even more ashamed of my shame. I felt like I had become reckless with talking about a largely taboo topic of my life, and it hurt me that the people around me were suffering the consequences.
So, I largely stopped talking about my mental illness. No more social media posts, no more casual mental illness references and jokes in conversation and very little openness about mental illness in private text conversations.
I knew I was playing right into the stigma. But I was overwhelmed by the shame of the effects my illness has on me and the people around me. I was scared.
I still am scared people will judge me or treat me differently if they know I struggle with mental illness. I’m scared of being underestimated or having to justify and prove my experiences to people. I’m terrified that people will overreact.
I’m scared of the dumb things people will inevitably say — just choose to be happy, why don’t you drink more water, have you tried yoga? — and I’m anxious about how to respond to them. I’m scared being open will impact my future ability to get a job.
And most of all, I am scared to speak up because I don’t want to become a spokesperson for every person who struggles with mental health. I only know my experience — not other people’s — and although it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, I am more than my mental illness.
I know the fear is wrong and somewhat unjustified. But the effects of living in a society full of judgment for mentally ill people don’t go away just because you know something is wrong and shouldn’t be the way it is.
I’ve never felt comfortable making social media posts or talking about my experience with mental illness in any context. And although I’ve pushed myself, there’s a lot I still don’t have the strength to tell anyone or be open about.
But a little discomfort and fear are worth it if it means that eventually, I won’t feel the shame and fear that come with being honest about my experiences. If future mentally ill people won’t have to face the stigmatization and shame I feel, then it has to be worth it.
I want to live in a world where people can speak openly about their experiences and feelings with mental illness without receiving judgment or someone overreacting. I want future mentally ill people to be able to seek the help they need without being ashamed, and for mental illness to be a part of the candidly discussed aspects of reality, instead of the awkwardly avoided elephant in the room.
I want mental illness not to be a deterrent for hiring someone. One day, the general public will know how to discuss mental illness and treat those with mental illness, and the whole world will be better for it. I want to live in that world.
But none of that’s going to happen if those of us with mental illness don’t start speaking up and trying to normalize our experiences, regardless of any apprehensions. And for those who don’t experience mental health issues, please listen without judgment and ask your friends how you can best support them. Once we all start having real conversations, we can all really work to be better.
As always, I’m scared and uncertain, but this is bigger and more important than that.
So, here I am again, saying out loud and for everyone to read: “I experience depression and anxiety on a pretty much constant basis. I am mentally ill and probably will be for the rest of my life — and it’s OK.”