Trigger warnings: depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation
It is 5 pm on a Wednesday evening.
I am behind in all my classes, barely recovered from the flu, and might not have enough money to last me this semester or a job to support myself.
And yet, I am happy.
Happier than I had been for days. Months. Years.
I can finally see the light at the end of a long, dark, and treacherous tunnel that my depression and anxiety had thrust me into.
I had my first suicidal thoughts in middle school. The thoughts abated, but continued to be a part of me for seven years now. Four years into my recurring thoughts of suicide and self-harm, I knew these never-ending feelings of doom and hopelessness weren’t normal.
But I did nothing to help myself, and I am not alone. Two out of every three people who suffer from depression do not seek or receive proper treatment in America. In countries and cultures where mental illness is still severely stigmatized, this number is even higher.
I come from one such culture where mental illness is so stigmatized that being sent to a psychiatric hospital is the worst thing that can happen to a person’s credibility. I still remember my mother making a joke about a psychiatric hospital we were passing by one time. She is one of the kindest and most well-meaning people I know, but this is the culture she was born and raised in. I did not and do not fault her for it, even when I felt like crying as she said those words.
Well aware of the stigma behind mental illness and my reluctance to have my parents involved, I did not seek help until I arrived at Wellesley. Even at Wellesley, I made sure that no information regarding my treatment would ever make its way to my parents. It was such a tightly held secret that, until this past summer, only five people knew I was being treated for depression and anxiety. Three of them were members of the Stone Center. Two of them were friends I made at Wellesley. No one from my hometown knew about my depression or anxiety. When I did eventually tell a handful of people they all told me that “they had no clue” and that I “looked like I was having the time of my life.” They had no clue that I felt like putting myself out of my misery every day.
It was suffocating not being able to explain, but, fearing judgment and condescension, I kept my mouth shut. I only ended up telling some people at home because my suicidal thoughts were severely triggered this past summer, and in a fit of uncontrollable anger and frustration, I blurted it out to several of my closest friends. Most were accepting. Some invalidated my illness and spread the information around. It was one of the hardest times of my life, but I am still grateful for the opportunity I had to finally open up to my closest friends. Since then, I have become more open about my illness at school and with my friends, and it has done wonders for my mental health.
The point of all this is to emphasize that not all people have the privilege of being treated, diagnosed, or even speaking out about their illnesses to others.
I still remember reading a comment by someone at Wellesley about how they had been diagnosed by a psychiatrist, unlike the people who self-diagnosed themselves and thought of themselves as “special snowflakes.” It wasn’t the first time I read something like that, and it really bothered me when I read it at Wellesley—especially when I had just been diagnosed with depression and anxiety by a psychiatrist.
It bothered me because before being diagnosed and coming to Wellesley, I had also self-diagnosed myself as depressed. Back when I was just self-diagnosed, I could tell myself I was over-reacting, and I did often tell myself I was just trying to be “special.” Despite the hours and hours of my time that I put into researching my symptoms and condition, I still wanted to hold onto some hope that there was nothing wrong with me. That I didn’t need help. That I wasn’t the defect my culture told me I was.
Being diagnosed did finally banish those thoughts and force me to confront my illness and treat it. It wasn’t easy. One counselor told me my depression and suicidal thoughts were an overreaction to a close friend of mine passing away, despite my extensive history of suicidal thoughts. One doctor told me I just needed more vitamin D and exercise, despite the fact that I’m from a state that is sunny year-round and walk several miles a day. Every step of the way, someone told me that I was overreacting and that there was no need to go on anti-depressants. But despite the lectures, nausea, and insomnia that resulted as a consequence of my taking the medicine, I’m glad I stayed on it. Because I finally feel like life is worth living, and that to me is worth so much more than the bullshit I fed myself and was fed before.
So I want to say that yes, there are people who misuse mental illness terms.
And, there are also people who self-diagnose themselves because that’s all they can do.
There are people who can’t afford the monetary price of treatment. There are people who don’t have the support of their family members or other loved ones. There are people who would face more than just pity and condescension if their mental illness were to be revealed. And I think it’s time to admit that emphasizing a professional diagnosis and invalidating the concerns of those who self-diagnose themselves hurt those with mental illnesses, even as it is meant to help them.
And to those that suspect they may have a mental illness or have concerns that you’ve never shared with anyone else or feel stressed about something you’re bottling up: go seek out help—whether from a friend, mentor, counselor, or someone else who will guarantee your privacy. The worst that can happen is someone looks down on you, and then you can move on to someone who will take you and your well being seriously. Recovery is worth the risk. Feeling better is worth the risk.
From October 2015 Issue