It’s Not Up to You to Decide if Someone’s Mental Illness is “Real”
A person’s mental illness is not deemed “valid” based on what other people can see.
I came across a Quora question today where someone wanted to know how to tell if their sister was “actually” depressed. The anonymous user stated that their sister says that she is depressed and is in therapy, but that they believe the sister is a “bratty” kid who is “overly pampered.”
Nothing in the question gave an indication of the age of the sister or the question-asker, though from the way it was written, I would guess that both of them are young, maybe teenagers. But this line of thinking isn’t uncommon, and the question got me thinking about the ways in which people with mental illnesses are oftentimes not believed because there is no “proof” of their disease.
People have a hard time believing what they can’t see. When they can’t see any obvious physical signs or reasons for a mental illness, it can be difficult for those who have never experienced it to understand.
Have you ever heard someone say about a person with depression, “Oh, what do they have to be depressed about?”
What about telling a person with anxiety that they, “Shouldn’t be anxious about that?”
Or questioning any person’s mental illness because there are no outward signs?
People who have seemingly privileged and charmed lives get told they can’t be depressed because they have nothing to be depressed about. A person who seems confident and successful can’t possibly have an anxiety disorder. Someone who doesn’t fit the stereotypical “look” of having an eating disorder isn’t believed when they say they have one. And on and on.
But it’s not the job of other people to tell someone whether or not they have a mental illness. (Unless, obviously, they are a trained professional and are doing so in the context of their work.) And someone’s mental illness is not deemed “valid” based on what other people can see.
The idea that a mental illness has to look or act a certain way is harmful both to those who have a mental illness and those who don’t.
If someone is being told that they aren’t believed when it comes to their mental illness because they don’t fit the idea of what the illness should look like, that can cause shame. This shame can just make their suffering worse. It may prevent or stop them from seeking help. This attitude can force people to suffer in silence for years, because they don’t think they will be believed, or they may even doubt their own experiences because of the message they are being sent.
Also, if you tell a person with a mental illness that you don’t believe that they have one, you will probably just make them blame themselves for their problem more. Take the sister with depression as an example. She may already blame herself for her depression. She might think, because she lives a comfortable life, that she shouldn’t be depressed, that she is somehow making herself be depressed or is otherwise to blame. In reality, depression is an illness, and it does not care how “good” your life is.
These negative ideas about how mental illnesses work have harmful effects on people who don’t suffer from one as well. When people don’t understand how mental illnesses operate and harbor false ideas about who gets them and why, they can end up contributing to the stigma. Ultimately, living in a society where mental illness carries a stigma and is often misunderstood is harmful to us all.
I don’t know if the person who asked the Quora question will change the way they see their sister’s depression, or if all the responses of people attempting to educate them will be ignored. I hope they are able to have more compassion toward their sister in the future.
I am heartened though by the fact that those who responded were overwhelmingly in support of the depressed sister. While there are still many people out there who hold harmful beliefs about mental illness, the tide is turning. We learn more every day, and with that learning comes more compassion and more acceptance for those with mental illnesses.
Grace Carlson is a writer from Washington. She writes about travel, mental health, writing, and books. Sometimes she’s funny, or at least that’s what her mom says. Visit her blog, A Passport And A Pencil.