I read an article on The Guardian website a couple of weeks ago that got me thinking. The article talked about society’s apparent need to conceptualise mental illness as a ‘real’ thing, in a way that is physical and material. It’s something that has bothered for a long time; there seems to be such a divide between mental and physical illnesses and as someone with mental health problems, it can be exhausting trying to validate an illness that others can’t see.
The article describes society’s need to find ways to present mental illness as equal to physical illness and it’s something I’ve faced frequently during periods of struggling with my mental health.
Simplistic biological explanations tend to increase stigma, not least because they cement a division between ill and well people. Many people have felt silenced and traumatised by such accounts, feeling that the illness model shuts down their truth.
There is an implicit suggestion here that mental health problems have to be viewed as being equivalent to physical illnesses if they are to warrant society’s care and funding.
It’s no surprise that it can be challenging for people to understand something they cannot see, as humans we often need something tangible to hook into. But there seems to be a great focus on people with mental illness to need to prove that it’s there, something that seems less apparent with physical health problems. When was the list time you needed to demonstrate you had asthma, for instance? People tend to accept your condition at face value without needing to have proof of it.
I asked people with mental or hidden illnesses to share what they wished they could tell friends around them about their condition:
- Just remember. Ask but not push. Learn about it. Learn the signs.
- When you say “Yes I found X hard too, then I did Y and it was better” in response to me saying I cannot do something, it is hurtful; it shows you believe I could do it if I wanted it enough or if I was more like you. There is often a hint in there that you are finding it frustrating. If you want me for example, my room to be tidy that much, you could just ask if I would like it if you helped me to do it. Otherwise, you can accept that what I am saying is the truth: cannot, not will not. No matter how much you may think “if she can do X, why can’t she do Y?”
- Knowing that the unknown can panic someone, like not knowing if food is involved, how long you’ll be doing whatever it is, who’ll be there etc. Be understanding if someone is too freaked/anxious or uncomfortable being there!
- Simply believe me. Just because you cannot see it, certainly doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. When I am bad, the world doesn’t see me, only my bed does. So please believe me in every way. If I say I am not up to something today, it’s true. I shouldn’t have to justify myself to my friend.
- Don’t give up on my as a friend because I’m always cancelling or having to leave early. Don’t think I’m lazy because I need to sleep lots.
- It’s not ‘just a crumb’, it’s poison to me
- Just because I cancel at the last minute every time, it doesn’t mean I don’t value our friendship. It means I just couldn’t that day.
So what can you do to support someone you know who is struggling with a mental or hidden illness:
- Please understand– sometimes I need a nap in the day. I am not lazy, I cannot always sleep at normal times and everyday activities exhaust me.
- Please still include me– I cannot always participate but I feel good when included and will participate whenever I can.
- Please don’t judge me– sometimes I go silent and hibernate, sometimes I express my pain through status updates or messages. I’m very vulnerable when I do this and appreciate kindness.
- Please forgive me– when I’m not there for you as a friend, because I’m struggling to keep my head above water and survive.
- Please understand– my medication sometimes makes me sleepy/out of sorts/upset etc. I may seem over the top at times, but at that point, I’m just needing a comforting response.
- Please be patient with me– it’s difficult living with an illness. There are days when I’m not myself and not up to all the things I might have once done. Please give me time and patience and maybe we can do those things once more.
Hidden and mental illnesses warrant the same support and respect from friends, family and those around them. It can feel challenging to have to prove you’re unwell if you condition isn’t obvious from looking at you, but it doesn’t make it any more valid. Perhaps try and discuss why proof is necessary rather than feeling the need to provide it.