Author: Violette Kay
I used to feel a lot of pressure to be discreet about my bipolar disorder. When asked what my plans were for the day, I wouldn’t mention therapy appointments if that’s what was on the agenda. I wouldn’t take my medication in front of people. I would also keep any mention of past episodes as vague as possible. I suppose I was ashamed, but mainly I just didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.
I am far less discreet now. Or far more open, I should say. This shift in attitude and behavior began a few years ago, when my then-13-year-old sister was to come spend a couple of weeks at my place over summer break. In preparation for her visit, I took a good look around my apartment and began trying to hide all signs of it being inhabited by a mentally ill person. I moved my pill bottles from the kitchen table to a sock drawer. I put away my mood charts and therapy homework. I took the post-it note reminding me of my next psychiatrist appointment off the fridge. Then I had a change of heart. It all felt morally wrong. I said to myself: “No. Mental illness is my reality, and I need to be able to live it out in my own home”, and I returned my apartment to its natural state.
I wanted to be a good example for my little sister. If she saw me managing my illness and living out loud, if she witnessed it from a young age, maybe she wouldn’t grow up with the notion that mental illness is shameful. What I hoped for most of all was that hearing me casually talk about mental health all the time in the comfort of my own home would teach her that talking about these topics doesn’t have to be a big deal. I also hoped she would realize I’m comfortable with these conversations, so that if she ever goes through similar experiences she will know I’m someone she can come talk to.
Kids are amazing. They learn so much so fast, and their potential for acceptance and understanding is so high. Yes, they can also be really mean, but that can be remedied. The point is their minds are far more malleable than grown ups’. Speaking to young people about taboo subjects is difficult, but not so much on the receiving end. It’s the adults who are most uncomfortable. We must find ways to navigate that discomfort if we ever want the next generation to grow up in a world with less stigma around mental illness.
I think there’s this worry, when talking about mental illness to young people, of making it sound like this hopeless and terrible thing that will impact their life forever. This is absolutely not true: some of us will experience a lifelong mental illness, but many others may be depressed once when they’re fifteen and then never again. (How many of us have had our first major depressive episodes dismissed as normal teenage behavior?) Both of these experiences are valid.
This is why I believe the conversation we want to have with youth is about mental HEALTH rather than mental ILLNESS. Mental illness is a diagnosable set of behaviors/symptoms that affects roughly 1 in 5 people, whereas mental health is something everyone has, and everyone can struggle with it whether they have a mental illness or not. We all experience difficult emotions and don’t need to have a mental illness to need and deserve support. Mental health is something we will have forever, something important to think about and take care of as a normal part of our daily lives.
This is not to take away from the struggles of people with mental illnesses. I know saying “We ALL go though this” can seem dismissive. But I do think if ALL young people could learn to talk about their emotions and support each other, those who do go on to live with a severe lifelong mental illness would be better equipped to cope with it, and have a more supportive social circle. Anyway… that’s the dream. Living with a mental illness in a largely silent and misunderstanding world is our reality, but it doesn’t have to be our children’s. They are out there, watching, listening and ready to learn.