Written by Philippa Walsh
It is widely reported that 1 in 4 people in this country will experience a mental health issue in any one year and that such issues account for heavy burdens upon the economy through lost work days, increased benefits claims and the need for additional healthcare provision.
But what about the individuals behind these statistics? Life can be complicated enough, but it can become quite daunting if you’re one of the people these statistics refer to and you’ve been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition.
Edition five of the DSM, lists over three hundred mental health conditions. For those not involved in the mental health profession, this rather thick tomb of a publication is one of two diagnostic manuals used to determine whether or not you tick enough boxes to qualify for a specific mental health condition.
The function of providing accurate diagnoses must never be understated; it plays a fundamental role in increasing access to sometimes life saving psychological or pharmacological support. My issue is, that the only people (and I use this term loosely) that wouldn’t tick a few of the DSM's boxes would be the characters out of Westworld or The Walking Dead! If we have a pulse, we also have thoughts and emotions and the capacity to respond to them both positively and negatively - otherwise known as being a living breathing human being!
According to the DSM-5, I partly qualify for several ‘disorders’ including the OCD trait of perfectionism and quite possibly Generalised Anxiety. Fortunately, both traits haven't served me too badly. It is a fact that like our clients, therapists are also human and are definitely not infallible.
The over-riding question here is not why the psychiatric profession feels the need to pathologize so many common human foibles and eccentricities (that question has been tackled in several publications already), but why such a practice fills us with anxiety?
If you are like me, the mere thought of being labelled is insulting. How can our uniqueness possibly be defined by one term? We are multi-faceted! We feel, we love, we have agency! And perhaps that is why many of the client’s I work with struggle with their formal diagnoses. To be labelled can often feel like being reduced to a single stereotype, which in itself can bring up feelings of stigmatisation and dis-empowerment.
For you, it might be that part of your belief system posits that you always have to be the 'strong one' and that mental health issues indicate 'weakness'.
Like my article image – labels do belong on jars, not people. But isn’t there always more than one perspective on every topic, whatever our beliefs are? And how well do such beliefs serve us?
Perhaps the saying 'pride comes before a fall'' serves us with a reminder, that we should never not seek help for fear of what others will think.
Imagine experiencing the world differently from your peers and family and never understanding why. With her permission, this is how a close friend of mine once described her life (let’s use the assumed name of Kate):
“One minute you’re filled with elation, feel at your creative best, are doing great at work and are able to perform on seemingly little sleep. Three weeks later, you take an almighty crash. Any motivation you had has packed up and left, you can’t stop the feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing, and you only have enough energy to pull the duvet further over your head. Before you know it, you’ve spent five weeks in bed and you can see no end to the darkness that’s hijacked your head”.
This is one example of what bi-polar might feel like. Kate had experienced these terrible booms and busts for fifteen years and it sadly stole most of her twenties. I never did understand back then why she wouldn’t answer her phone for days at a time (had I been a therapist then, I might have had more insight). She once joked to me “If I had a pound for every day I’d spent in bed hiding from the world, I could probably retire at 45”.
Courageously, Kate sought professional help. Admittedly, it had been long overdue. Six weeks later, (not at all bad for the NHS), Kate became the rather relieved recipient of a formal diagnosis of bi-polar.
Of-course there was the initial shock and the worry about negative judgement; what would her employer think? Would her partner want to leave? But Kate finally felt validated. Her erratic mood swings and inconsistent behaviour were not from choice or because she had decided to be ‘difficult’ with her loved ones. It was because she had been unwell for a significant number of years, and now both she and her family could understand what had been going on. More importantly Kate got the support she needed as her condition had been recognised as bonafide. Fortunately for Kate, she had underestimated the staying power of her partner!
The point of this article is that while more efforts need to be made to continue tackling the stigma of mental illness - being diagnosed with one does not have to mean the beginning of the end. There are many successful and inspiring individuals living with the ‘label’ of mental illness every day, including Kate who uses her experience of mental illness to motivate her further in spite of the down days.
I don’t for one second underestimate the daily struggle of living with a mental health diagnosis, but that diagnosis makes up one part of your multi-faceted uniquely beautiful self. You are MORE than a medical 'label' and you deserve to transcend it in whichever way you feel able.
Some great support for living with mental illness can be found here.
This covers everything from the impact of diet on your mood, to finding the right support and getting employment and relationship advice.
If you are reading this and have been suffering in silence, please seek professional support. It is only with your courage and those of others, that we can eventually reduce the stigma associated with mental health.
Help end the stigma by making a pledge.