Invisible Illness, Real Pain

By Amadea Smith

At my high school, it is not uncommon to hear put-downs in the hallways – “He’s just trying to get attention,” “She’s so bipolar.” These kinds of naive comments about mental illness are just as ubiquitous as a wad of gum under a chair. Sixty million people worldwide suffering from bipolar disorder have their illness reduced to a joke in the brutal hallways of high schools, due to the fact that teens are mostly in the dark about mental health issues. Mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, are invisible to many, but cause real pain.

I have witnessed bipolar disorder being perceived as something less legitimate than physical illnesses. Bipolar isn’t a flaw, a failure, a weakness. It’s not an excuse to get attention. There was a time when people were not comfortable divulging a cancer diagnosis, keeping it a secret, as if ashamed. Thankfully, cancer is no longer a source of shame. It’s time for bipolar disorder and all mental illnesses to enjoy this kind of respect and understanding. No one would tell a cancer patient, “If you just try a little harder, you may feel better.” Why does this painfully dismissive phrase roll off the lips of so many students concerning those with bipolar disorder? It is because of ignorance and stereotypes, the roots of stigma that relegate to a state of inferiority those suffering from mental illness.

Stigma was one of the reasons why my sister, who has bipolar disorder, left her high school. It was less stressful to just stay home. She had cuts marking her arms, tears filling her eyes, and cries of confusion as she lay in her bed. She tried taking her life, feeling so alone. But she couldn’t tell many of her friends, in part because she was fearful of being branded with an even deeper mark of disgrace. She never went back to that school. She told me recently, “I’m afraid to talk about my disorder. I’m afraid that people will be scared of me since many people with bipolar are portrayed in the media as out-of-control or violent. People won’t understand.”

As a current student at my sister’s old school, I can safely say there has been little progress. I still hear insensitive comments in the halls, the same disheartening stories of students struggling with their illness and its stigma. It’s unfortunate that some students are embarrassed to be open about going to counseling or therapy. These appointments are just as valid and necessary as any other medical appointment. Once again, social stigma is keeping some young people from getting the help they need. I have a friend who wonders if he has bipolar disorder. He has reached out to his parents about getting therapy, but his father insists he doesn’t need it. Why do parents sometimes ignore their children’s feelings, yet insist on straight A’s? Why are emotions any less important than grades?

I see kids dragging through the halls. It’s obvious they are suffering. But then I see students with smiles on their faces; are they wearing happiness masks? Are they hiding their anxiety and sadness, their true feelings? My sister has explained to me how tiring it can be to feign happiness in public. I think that’s why so many people with invisible illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, isolate themselves. I may be sitting next to a student who is suffering in silence. I don’t know whether he is happy or if he is wearing a happiness mask. That’s a problem, because if people are hiding, they are less likely to get help.

All of this lack of understanding and acknowledgment, as well as my experience with watching my older sister suffer, has made me realize we need more mental health awareness in schools. In response, I co-founded with a fellow student the Mental Health Awareness Club (MAC, for short) at my school. We aim to create a safe environment to discuss topics related to mental health. We also hope to continue the dialogue generated by a recent school-wide assembly concerning mental health.

Last year, Chris Herren, a well-known basketball player, spoke at my school about the ups and downs of fitting in and his own downward spiral of substance abuse. His speech was so inspiring that about fifteen students were brave enough to walk over to the microphone to share their struggles with mental health, in front of two thousand students and teachers. The gym fell silent except for each cracking voice of the courageous student at the microphone. As students shared stories about suicide attempts and depression, the room filled with a sense of unity and safety. This was the first mental health assembly in the school’s history. And it turned into something more than a typical presentation. It was powerful. I felt fortunate to be part of something so remarkable. I wish my sister had been sitting next to me, experiencing the incredible sense of acceptance permeating the room. But then the bell rang. A faculty member took the microphone and announced that those who were waiting in line to speak, could not. Time had run out. We were told to report to our next class. After about a week, I felt as though the impact had worn off and the stigma had returned.

I believe we need to redefine how mental illness is perceived, not only in schools, but in the greater community. We need a world with more empathy: a world where Vincent’s Starry Starry Night is not composed of people who “ …would not listen. They did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now,” but of people who accept and care before stigma is etched into the heart of a suffering person, before it seems that the only option left is isolation, or worse. I want a world where Vincent is loved for who he is, for I believe this world is meant for one as beautiful as you.

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