For Those of Us Who Aren't "Sick Enough"
By: Maddy Rambeau (@lourambeau)
It’s a well-known fact that the people in the mental health community continuously have to fight against the harmful stigmas pushed upon them by society. Most often, the stigmas have to do with trivializing mental health issues, that is making mental illnesses seem as if they are not a big deal at all and sometimes even joking about them. This type of stigma directly causes mentally ill people to have chronic feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy. On their own, these feelings have the power to interrupt recovery and be harmful to a person’s mental health. There is one particular aspect that fits in with this trivializing category of stigmas: the “not sick enough” stigma that targets high functioning mentally ill people.
Personally, this particular stigma affects me on a nearly everyday basis. I have been diagnosed with more than one mental illness, but I am still relatively high functioning. I still am able to sustain a life that appears to be somewhat normal or healthy to a degree. This means that just because I’m not currently in a mental hospital or attempting suicide, that I must be AOK. This means that I am “sick”, but not “sick enough” in the eyes of others. This system of comparing one person’s trauma/mental health to another person’s is very toxic. Who is to judge one mentally ill person against another and say who has it worse? How sick does a person have to be to gain sympathy and understanding? Must we all be on the verge of suicide to be sick enough for society to validate our mental illnesses?
I have great grades and my test scores are outstanding, but I abruptly left traditional high school to start going to school 100% online. I look healthy to a stranger passing me on the street, but I’ve lost 30 pounds within one year and have both chronic physical and mental illnesses that you can’t always visibly see. I am able to leave my house, but I’m uncomfortable nearly every time I do so. I am talented and deeply involved in my passions, but I haven’t been able to hold a paying job yet. I’m actually excelling and overachieving in some parts of my life, I have accomplished so much more than the average teenager, which I guess makes it hard for others to believe that I’m at risk for sudden cardiac arrest and most days I am scared to talk on the phone. I’ve had anxiety all my life, but people mistook my nervous antics for excitement when I was younger because the idea that a bright little girl could have crippling anxiety was just silly. It took years for someone to recognize self-harm symptoms and months to get in with a good psychologist. Is this really what it means to be high functioning?
Sometimes people look at me with a puzzled look when they find out I’m sick, often they even think I must be faking it because I just seem so not mentally ill. I don’t fit the stigma of a mentally ill person because, in many people’s eyes, a mentally ill person is crazy, obvious to point out on the streets, and shouldn’t be trusted with a gun. These things aren’t true, but that is how it is, unfortunately. Some people have even said that they would have never guessed that I’m sick or struggling, it seems as if I have the perfect stable life. Some people attribute my antics for just being shy or quirky, until they find out I have anxiety issues and then I’m symptomatic in their eyes. I am pretty high functioning, but my mental illnesses are severe and debilitating, just because I can work through them doesn’t mean I don’t struggle. Just because I’m not falling apart in front of everyone’s eyes doesn’t mean anything less than the truth. This is the struggle high functioning mentally ill people go through every single day.
People have this idea in their head of what a typical mentally ill person looks like. They must have bad grades and no social life. They must have no hobbies or passions. They must be goth or awkwardly shy. They must be violent or isolative. They must always be crying and can’t have a love life. This is why when the prom queen with the 4.0 GPA commits suicide, everyone takes it as a surprise because they never suspected a thing. This is why when the very attractive and talented superstar athlete quits the team because their anxiety is getting worse, nobody understands them or believes them. These high functioning mentally ill people are the ones who most often slip through the cracks. These are the people who go without help until it’s almost too late. Counselors, family, and friends don’t detect it, so high functioning mentally ill people can go years without ever receiving proper professional treatment until they get worse to the point where finally someone notices their struggle. It really sucks when nobody believes you’re sick until you’re in the hospital.
It really sucks when nobody believes that you are mentally ill until your psychologist says so. Remember that mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Society breeds these ideas of the type of people who mental illnesses manifest themselves in, and they are completely incorrect. So many people have to deal with their mental illnesses alone, with everyone telling them that they are nonexistent. This practically forces a person to have to get much worse before they can ever get better. This is extremely dangerous which is why this stigma needs to end. People are being overlooked because they don’t fit some made up mold of what a mentally ill person is. This constant invalidation of something that you struggle with on a daily basis is detrimental to your mental health. Making light of someone’s mental health just because they aren’t about to jump off a bridge is exactly what pushes people to get to that point.
Just think about if a person had cancer and someone kept telling them that they should be happy because some people have it worse off than they do. Just think about how horrible it feels to be sick enough to greatly affect your life, but somehow not sick enough for people to give a damn enough to care about it. It is time to stop allowing the struggles of high functioning mentally ill people to keep going unnoticed. It is time to believe them and to hear their stories. It is time to stop forcing people to get so sick and so lost before we help them. It is time to care for all mentally ill people, no matter what “degree” their trauma is.