Even though it’s 2020, mental illness is still very misunderstood. Everyone who has low self esteem or feels nervous, has anxiety. Everyone who feels sad sometimes has depression. Everyone who is obsessed with having a neat desk is OCD. And everyone who cannot focus has ADHD. And not all thin women are anorexic.
But to actually suffer with mental illness is not as romantic as movies would have you believe. Every day is hard. Because every day, you are trying to function like a “normal” human being. And people assume that everyone with a mental illness has to look the same way. And that incredibly confident CEO could never suffer with bipolar, right? Although this is not a post about the difficulties of being on the mental illness spectrum. This is about those symptoms that we don’t talk about.
Laziness. Well, actually, perceived laziness. Sometimes people who suffer with mental illness struggle to complete tasks. And while you are motivated to complete tasks, you actually physically cannot for a number of reasons. Fear of failure. Perfectionism. Lack of motivation. Inability to concentrate. Sure, not all laziness is as a result of mental illness, but we need to start digging a little deeper when someone seems to be lazy and unproductive. It isn’t always as a result of lack of effort or desire.
Unemployment. Even though many companies will have mental health and wellness policies these days, and mental illness is starting to have its time in the sun, like wearing green on mental health day in October, when someone is actually suffering, and it’s affecting their work, it’s chalked up to poor performance. Especially in big corporate companies, poor performance is very rarely connected to mental illness. And a lot of the time, if we can give people the support and time to heal from mental illness, as we do with physical illness, we’ll improve productivity in our organisations.
Divorce/Singleness. Mental illness affects relationships. For many years, I suffered with undiagnosed anxiety, and a lot of disagreements between my husband and I were fueled by my negative outlook. I’d always been an optimistic person, and here was one of the closest people to me, telling me that he couldn’t handle my negativity. Now that we know about my anxiety and how it manifests, we are able to manage symptoms, and he is better able to understand me. But for many people, who suffer with mental illness, they struggle to maintain relationships, with romantic partners, but also friendships. We spend a lot of time in a vicious cycle of wanting to be social, but not having the energy to be social as a result of spending all day fighting mental illness to be perceived as a normal/likeable/successful individual.
Unidentified physical illness. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have experienced random physical conditions like carpel tunnel, bowel and bladder issues, and other conditions. And most of these are directly related to their mental illness. Now, don’t get me wrong. Not all physical illness are manifestations of mental illness, and even if they are as a result of physical illness, they are serious, and need to be treated as such. But what needs to be done is treat the mental illness and not just ignore it, because, if we do, the physical illness will continue. Also, some physical conditions are caused by the excess of cortisol in our systems as a result of anxiety for example. We need to start viewing the body holistically. The brain is an organ just like the heart or lungs or liver. And it can get sick just like those other organs.
Lack of confidence. I mention this separately, because a lot of people experience the symptoms of a mental illness, but with people who do not understand, they attribute these symptoms to be part of that person’s character. So we get labelled as aloof, or lazy, negative, aggressive. And if the person feels that this is not true to their character, there is the potential to feel unconfident and insecure in who you are. And if people don’t like you because of symptoms like your negativity, or perceived self-absorption, it can leave you wondering, what is so wrong with me? And then lack of confidence in abilities, because you can never do anything right because of unproductivity as a result of depression for example. Or not doing well at school or work, and wondering what it is about you that is making you so incapable of success, when it could possibly be ADHD that is affecting your work, as an example.
Failure. It goes without saying considering all the above, that people who suffer with mental illness suffer a lot from failure. Perceived failure sometimes as a result of impossible standards. Actual failure as a result of lack of productivity, or poor motivation, absenteeism, missed dealines etc. And that is the challenge, to separate the symptoms from character, and understanding yourself, to know where your symptoms are making you fall short, and what you can manage, and what you can change.
Ultimately, mental illness is an invisible illness, no one knows how much you’re suffering from the outside. They cannot read your thoughts, nor can they see the related emotional stress, or the physical tax mental illness takes on your body. But also, it is not clear how this invisible illness, which a lot of people don’t really understand, and cannot conceive of how it impacts your life, has these other impacts on your life, causing that vicious cycle of having mental illness, struggling, having it impact your life negatively, and thereby creating difficult life experiences which would impact anyone’s emotional stability, let alone someone who is already suffering.
Mental illness is complex. And while having a diagnosis can be liberating, operating in a world that doesn’t understand you and what that diagnosis means is difficult. And then the result of this lack of understanding is these “invisible symptoms” that do not appear on the DSM.
I am very open about my illnesses, and symptoms, and how they impact my life. And my husband has now gained more understanding so he has a better grasp of how my anxiety impacts both me, and our relationship. I have also joined a group at work to support sufferers and carers of mental illness, and my main objective of joining this group is to spread the awareness and understanding of mental illness, and how it impacts the working life of employees. The only way to counter these invisible symptoms that I’ve mentioned here is through knowledge, if you ask me. To have knowledge of ourselves, and our mental illness, but then also for non-sufferers, or carers to have the information to develop their understanding.