Hiding Your Anxiety: The Stigma of Mental Illness
Ben worked as an accountant. It was the perfect job for him. He could sit at his desk each day and get his work done. He didn't need to interact with the public and his coworkers thought he was quiet, shy and a geek. They didn't bother him much. Most days, Ben was already at his dek when his coworkers arrived and most days, except Wednesdays, he was still at his desk when they went home. Ben often disappeared during lunch, never eating with his coworkers. Everyone thought Ben was hardworking and preferred to be left alone.
Ben has social anxiety disorder. He prefers to be left alone because it is better than the awful feeling he gets when he has to talk to someone. While he often looks at his coworkers with envy, because they easily talk and laugh with one another, he can't ever get past the feelings of anxiety to do the same. Ben comes in early and leaves after everyone else because it is better than having to speak to someone. He religiously leaves on time on Wednesday because he has an appointment with his therapist and sometimes that is the only time he feels he can talk about how he feels.
Last year, another coworker went into the hospital with severe depression. He heard the comments, "He just needs to get over it," "Does he think he is the only person with a hard life?" and "He didn't look sad to me." Ben could imagine they would say the same about him if they knew that he started shaking when he needed to explain his work or that he ate lunch alone in his car each day because he couldn't stand the idea of eating in front of other people. They would think he was "crazy" if they knew how he really felt.
Anxiety, like other mental illnesses, is considered a "hidden disability." Even those who know the warning signs and symptoms of anxiety can't tell if someone has anxiety just by looking at him. And, in the absence of a full-blown anxiety attack, many people hide their symptoms for fear of being laughed at or discriminated against. Like many people, Ben worried that he would be fired if his boss knew about his anxiety. After all, grown men aren't supposed to be afraid of talking to a coworker.
According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, it affects as many as one in every four adults in the United States each year with one in 17 living with a severe mental illness. That means that no matter who you are, you probably know someone who lives with a mental illness, for example, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or bipolar. Despite this, the stigma lives on.
While Ben did see a therapist each week, the stigma of mental illness often prevents people from seeking treatment or reaching out for help. Instead, they live in isolation or live with the constant scrutiny and disapproval of those around them. Stigma causes:
- People to be afraid to seek treatment
- A lack of understanding by friends, family and coworkers
- Discrimination and fewer opportunities at work and school
- The belief that it is "your fault"
- Feelings of hopelessness
Whether you have mental illness or know someone who does, there are ways you can fight stigma.
If you have mental illness: Seek help, talk to your doctor, reach out to family members, join an in-person or online support group. Find a safe place you can openly talk about your illness. All of these actions help you realize that you are not alone and that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about and it isn't your fault.
If you know someone who has mental illness: Reach out and let him or her know you are there and available. Stop people when you hear the words, "crazy," or "luny." Ask them to not refer to people that way, using "he has anxiety" rather than "he is crazy."
Stigma will end when we openly address and discuss mental illness in the same way as we discuss arthritis, cancer or migraine disease. It will end when we accept that anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or other mental illnesses are illnesses. People didn't ask for this and you can't "catch" it is you stand too close to someone. Stigma will end when we accept that mental illness doesn't affect intelligence or ability. It is not who someone is, it is waht someone has. Stigma will end when we all insist that it no longer has a place in our society.