There’s a belief I want to challenge. One that prompts similarly phrased sayings that are tossed around frequently and readily, in an attempt to disrupt and ultimately lessen the stigma of mental illness.
“You wouldn’t feel ashamed of having cancer, the flu or diabetes!” “Taking antidepressants should be regarded the same guiltless way as a diabetic taking insulin!” “Physical illnesses hold no disgrace!”
Ring a bell? The medication one I hear most often. Taking insulin might be listed alongside treatments such as a cast on a broken leg, painkillers to nurse headaches, a plaster for an accidental wound. Offered as an aid that is seen as easy and without any questioning as to its need.
I understand the perspective and the intention, but it’s so very inaccurate.
Am I picking holes? What’s the harm, right? Wrong. It IS damaging. It adds to the mistaken regard of physical illness as entirely separate from psychological. While attempting to normalise conversations about mental illness, a regard for the emotional influence of some ‘physical’ conditions is being thrown under the bus. This is especially important in relation to ED-DMT1 and diabulimia. For those that struggle with an eating disorder and type-1-diabetes taking insulin is not an action that is thoughtlessly undertaken without fear or worry. In fact, it is far from, that fear can feel crippling.
The notion that there is no ignominy attached to physical conditions is a lie. This most related to the misconceptions attached to the presence of what are labelled ‘invisible illnesses’. Many people assume that if an ailment is not in plain sight it must not have any significant impact. This makes it harder to let some aspects of it be seen when they need to be. And honestly, the sheer principle that having a bodily malfunction that can never be fixed (unless there’s a cure) is not going to be mentally burdening is quite ridiculous.
There’s also the commonly held assumption that diabetes being like doing X and taking Y which will equal Z. This can often be based on interactions people have had with those that have type-2-diabetes which is treated by tablets and so rarely the cause of disabling erratic blood sugar levels. I mean, your friend tells you her grandfather is diabetic but it doesn’t let it affect him at all so why should it get you down!
Of course, it’s brilliant that the barriers around mental health stigma are being pushed through. Talking and overcoming our embarrassment over distress and anxiety and depression is a hugely positive thing, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of widening understanding of the link between chronic health conditions and emotional strain.
Moreover, if you don’t have direct experience of something you should always consider your words relating to it with care. Yes, we need to keep talking, but we also need to be listening more intently, with an acknowledgement that teaching is one success, but learning from others is another that is just as important.
By Claire Kearns.