How Does it Feel to Have a Mental Health Problem?
Around 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 10 children will experience a diagnosable mental heath problem in their lifetime, yet many people still don’t know the symptoms to look out for or how it truly affects people.
I have bipolar disorder, and I also struggled with an eating disorder from my early teens to my early twenties. Although I very much consider myself to be ‘in recovery’ from anorexia, I don’t feel I am able to call myself fully recovered. I am a healthy weight now, but weight is not the only indicator of an eating disorder, and many people continue to struggle despite looking ‘healthy’ on the outside. This is one of the many misconceptions about mental illness, and I hope to clear some more up for you here based on my own experiences.
It’s a myth that people have to be thin to have an eating disorder - anorexia diagnoses actually make up quite a small percentage of those who have an eating disorder. People may struggle with bulimia or binge eating disorder, and most people fall into a category called OSFED, which means other specified feeding or eating disorder. This means that they may not have all the symptoms to get a diagnosis of other types of eating disorder, or may have something like purging disorder. However, the fact that all the criteria might not be met does not in any way mean that the disorder is any less serious. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, and that inner turmoil is what makes them so hard to live with. They completely consume your life, no matter what size you are.
Depression is another illness that is often misunderstood. Contrary to what many people think, it does not equal laziness and cannot be cured by determination and going for a run. Whilst it’s true that exercise and a positive mindset are of huge benefit to recovery and a big part of mental wellness, there are many different reasons why somebody might become depressed and it’s not as simple as putting a bit of effort in. To feel truly depressed is to feel worthless, empty and suffocated. It’s isolating and people are often filled with guilt about how their symptoms are impacting on those around them but feel powerless to stop it.
Alternatively, mania does not equal being happy and energised. Whilst this can be a part of it, it’s also about being out of control and feeling as though people around you don’t understand you. Your thoughts are going too fast to process and after a while, everything and everyone can become irritating. It involves careless and reckless decisions - I personally struggle most with excessive spending during these episodes. You can even lose touch with reality and experience psychosis. I’ve been fortunate to never have been truly psychotic at this stage, however I have had times of feeling extremely paranoid and confused.
Bipolar disorder is often misunderstood and is portrayed in the media frequently as being a plight of the creative genius or the young attractive nymphomaniac. It’s true that sometimes mental state can fuel creativity, but this isn’t everybody’s experience, and although promiscuity can be a symptom of mania, it’s actually a very dangerous and destructive behaviour. Bipolar disorder is a serious and lifelong mental illness and can affect all areas of somebody’s life.
Though I am speaking in depth about my own experiences and how they affect me, there are many other mental health problems that have a huge impact on people’s lives such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and emotionally unstable personality disorder, among others.
So how can you help if somebody around you is struggling with their mental health? The simplest answer is to be there for them. Ask them how they are, and genuinely listen to the answer. Find ways that you might be able to help make their life a little easier. Keep including them in things. Let them know you care. It can be scary and you might feel helpless, but I have never expected anyone around me to fix me. Knowing that I have a support network is amazing in itself.
And what about if you are struggling with your own mental health? My advice would be not to give up. When in the depths of illness it can be hard to see the light and believe that things will get better, but they can and they do. Talk to people, tell them what is going on for you; whether a friend, a colleague or a professional - or all three!
I kept my difficulties a secret for years through fear of judgement and ridicule. I was always worried about the impact being open would have on my life. But I can honestly say that talking about my mental health has been the best decision I ever made, both in terms of my own recovery and the way it has helped others.
We need to break down the stigma associated with mental illness and start challenging the misconceptions society holds. It’s time to start talking.