Mental Illnesses Should Be Treated Like Physical Sicknesses
By: Ella Napton
May of 2016 was undoubtedly the hardest month I have encountered in my 18 years of life. It proved to me that one can never expect things to go as planned. I had figured my last quarter in high school would go smoothly. AP tests were over, I didn't have any finals that were stress-worthy, and I was anticipating graduation with excitement. At the beginning of May, my excitement was quickly snatched away, and I encountered what was to be the first of the two massive struggles I would face.
In the early days of May, I began to feel extremely worried about trivial things and circumstances I could not control. I couldn't sleep, and I was starving, but food sounded disgusting. I was profusely sweating, shaking, and constantly had headaches. I no longer enjoyed things I otherwise would have, such as soccer, watching Netflix, or hanging out with friends.
I figured that it was just a phase, that soon I would be able to get back to normal. But as the weeks passed, and I kept my emotions and constantly racing thoughts bottled up, I began to lose control, and ultimately had what can only be described as a panic attack. My mom quickly scheduled an appointment for me with a physician. It came as a shock when I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and consequently depression as well. As I reflected on past experiences, everything began to make sense. With the help of medication and cognitive counseling, I began to rein in my anxiety and enjoy life again. I told a select few, but it felt as though this was something that should be kept in the shadows — something that would detract from the image others had of me.
Soon I was met with my next hurdle.I began to feel exhausted and sick with every illness imaginable. I figured that it was whooping cough or strep throat — both were making the rounds at my school. But lo and behold, both tests came back negative. We were at a loss, but it was soon suggested I get tested for mononucleosis. With six days left in my high school career, I got the blood test and waited three long minutes to hear the diagnosis: positive.
While it was a relief to have a name for the extreme fatigue I was experiencing, there is no medication to help aid recovery besides over-the-counter pain relievers. I watched my plans for the end of senior year go up in flames. This was not something I kept quiet. Within two hours everyone at school knew, teachers and students alike, and I began receiving help wherever and whenever I needed it. I attended half-days of school and was granted long extensions for assignments, which helped me immensely, but all the help made me stop and ponder the comparison between my two diagnoses and the contrast between the reception of the two.
Both plagued me with extreme exhaustion, gave me headaches, and made me shake uncontrollably. Both made me lack motivation to finish assignments and get out bed. Both forced me to lose touch with the world and people around me.
What differs is how people reacted. When it came to mono, I received endless amounts of support and well-wishes, likely because the effects are so visible. There is no stigma behind mono (besides it being known as the "kissing disease") and people know how to respond when someone says they have it. It's easy to be open about having mono because there is no judgment associated with it. But with regard to my anxiety and depression, I've found myself reluctant to tell professors and peers for fear that they would not see it as a viable excuse for missing school and turning assignments in late.
In that month, it became crystal clear to me that mental illnesses are treated much differently than physical illnesses. When struggling with anxiety, I am still expected to get up at 6:20 every morning, attend every class whether or not I am having a bad day, and finish my work on time. It is merely seen as an "excuse." When it comes to mono, the rules can be bent in order to ensure I am comfortable. Although I am grateful to the many teachers and friends who helped me while I have had mono, it angers me that we as a society do not treat and react to mental illnesses in the degree as we do physical sicknesses.