By Gabby Cushman
Fighting to break the stigma around mental health
This month, our theme is caring for our mental health. As someone who has dealt with a mental health condition since I was young, advocating for mental health awareness and education is such an important part of my life. Throughout my years as a peer support group leader in college, I’ve learned an essential part of mental health advocacy is correcting myths and misconceptions about mental health. We all have mental well-being to look after, and we need to create spaces to talk candidly about our experiences without judgment. Over the last few years, we have normalized discussing issues like anxiety and depression. However, we still have a long way to go in breaking down the stigma surrounding ALL mental health concerns and conditions.
Like adults, our little ones have mental health to care for, too. I started experiencing anxiety symptoms during elementary school, causing me to struggle in my relationships with my peers and self-esteem. Even with these obstacles, learning to take care of my mental health at an early age helped set me up to better cope with my anxiety as I got older and taught me essential empathy skills. Regardless of if your little ones deal with mental health concerns now, talking to them about mental health early on will set them up for success. To help with this conversation, let’s break down five misconceptions about mental health and the truth behind them.
Misconception #1: People with a diagnosis are the only ones who have to worry about their mental health.
Truth: Just like physical health, everyone must look after their mental health. For physical health, we try to stay active, keep up with our doctor’s appointments, and eat a balanced diet. To take care of our mental well-being, we spend time with loved ones, indulge in self-care activities, and sometimes seek therapy or medication. Everyone has life stressors or low points that can affect their mental health, regardless of whether they have an ongoing mental health condition. When we acknowledge that everyone has mental health, we also create a safer space for people with a diagnosis to speak about their specific experiences without stigma.
Misconception #2: Anyone can “get better” with enough willpower.
Truth: Think about it. Can you will a cold or a broken bone to get better? No, and the same goes for mental health concerns. Struggling with mental health doesn’t mean “choosing” to be sad or stressed. It can often mean experiencing intense emotional waves that feel out of your control. On top of that, people can experience symptoms like fatigue, issues with appetite and sleep, feeling guilty or helpless, and lack of motivation. These symptoms make it even harder to care for your mental health when needed. Like a physical wound, low mental health periods heal with time, support, and the resources that help each individual best.
Misconception #3: If you experience strong emotions or have intense reactions, there is something “wrong” with you.
Truth: Unfortunately, having strong emotional reactions, especially in public social situations, is sometimes frowned upon. But emotions affect everyone differently, and our feelings also respond to different triggers. For example, some people struggle with something called rejection sensitivity. Rejection sensitivity is when someone is more likely to react intensely to perceived or actual rejection. If a person with rejection sensitivity gets a job application turned down or a friend cancels plans with them, they may feel more emotional about it than others. It’s completely normal for everyone to experience a range of emotions, and we shouldn’t judge people for having strong feelings regularly. In fact, candid emotional expression is often linked to solid empathy skills, which are essential to being social justice advocates!
Misconception #4: Anxiety is just worrying a lot / Depression is just being sad / OCD is just being organized / Bipolar Disorder is just mood swings (etc.)
Truth: Many mental health diagnoses have been minimized to one simple trait. This is partly due to inaccurate media representation and a lack of proper education about mental health conditions. The truth is that having an ongoing mental health diagnosis, regardless of what it is, is a complex experience unique to each individual.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is usually misunderstood as just being hyper-organized, and you’ll often hear people say, “I’m so OCD about this.” In reality, OCD is a condition that causes a person to have obsessive intrusive thoughts that can range from worries about contamination to immoral actions. In response to these thoughts, a person can react with compulsive actions to reassure them that these thoughts won’t happen, such as excessive hand washing.
Depression often involves deep feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and emptiness, rather than a simple feeling of sadness. Bipolar disorder involves sometimes extended periods of depression and mania, not rapid mood swings.
As someone who deals with anxiety and panic attacks, my brain does a lot more than just excessive worrying. It puts my body in fight or flight mode in situations that are completely safe for me, such as driving or getting my blood drawn. It makes daily functioning more difficult for me than those who can do those tasks with no concern. We all must understand there’s more to these mental health conditions than how they’re usually defined, so we can create accepting spaces for people to be honest about their experiences with their diagnoses.
Misconception #5: There is one “best way” to treat mental health conditions.
Truth: There’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to managing your mental health. For those with ongoing conditions, it can be beneficial to do talk therapy or start taking medication to help manage intense symptoms. However, some people can struggle even more on medication or have conditions that don’t necessarily respond to talk therapy. Many people address their mental health concerns mainly through self-care practices and relying on a support network of their loved ones.
Let’s use me as an example again. Along with my anxiety, I also have trouble regulating my emotions at times. Because of that, I’ve actually used a combination of different practices in talk therapy throughout the past couple of years. I don’t want to leave my anxiety issues unaddressed if I only focus on managing my emotions, and vice versa. I also manage my anxiety through medication to make it easier on myself while learning to implement different coping mechanisms into my life.
Regarding self-care, I know exercising, waking up early, taking care of my hygiene, engaging in hobbies, and spending time with loved ones help me stay in a healthy mental space. I’ve tried other activities like journaling or meditation, but I find those put more pressure on me than actively making me feel better. I’ve discovered what works best for me over the years, and it will look a lot different from how other people best treat their own mental health. Everyone must know that just because a specific resource doesn’t work for them doesn’t mean they’re “untreatable.” Through trial and error, everyone can work on their mental wellness!
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