Stopping the Stigma of Mental Illness
Yoga and Mental Health Series
If you’ve read my “about” page, then you know a combination of mental health issues and recovering through yoga is what led me to become a yoga teacher. For the next few blog posts, I’m going to be writing within the topic of mental health. Living with anxiety and depression since childhood and post traumatic stress disorder in my early 20s, I understand how lonely, confusing, and all-around difficult life can be when you’re dealing with mental health issues. If you are struggling with your mental health, I want you to know that you are not alone, and if life got easier for me, it can for you, too. I want to show you how it’s possible.
Part 1: Stopping the Stigma of Mental Illness
1. a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.
“the stigma of mental disorder”
synonyms: shame, disgrace, dishonor, humiliation, (bad) reputation
I only just recently started to open up on social media about my history of depression, because I was scared to talk about it. However, the first time I saw a therapist for depression and anxiety was when I was 14 years old, the first time I was prescribed antidepressants was when I was 17, and the first time I was suicidal and inflicted self-harm was when I was 18.
For most of my life, I have somewhat silently struggled, because I was afraid of what people would think of me and how they would treat me differently if they knew I was mentally ill. That first therapist I saw when I was 14 was not a good fit and didn’t help me get to the root of my problems (which is a story for a later date) or even explain to me what depression or anxiety were. After some time I didn’t feel it was helping and didn’t want to go back. So I left therapy feeling more confused and depressed, didn’t know who to talk to or what could help, and continued down an unhealthy path and much chaos. My teenage years probably would have been much better had I known what depression actually was and the healthy ways to cope. Instead I spent my time feeling like I was crazy and unworthy of love and that nobody would accept me if they knew the “real me.”
Everyone goes through sadness or even depression at different times in their lives when something bad happens, but they typically return to their regular state of mind after relatively short period of time. But when that depression lasts for months, or even years, at a time, and you might not even have the answer as to what’s making you so feel so shitty all the time, that’s when the shamers show up to make the mentally ill believe that that they are somehow inferior. The unfortunate truth is that there will always be people who whisper, gossip and talk negatively about those who are struggling with their mental health. I have probably even been one of those people at some point. Some of the things I have personally heard people I know say about those with mental health struggles:
- “People who say they’re going to kill themselves just want attention.”
- “Maybe we would be better off if she just kills herself.”
- “Suck it up and get over it already.”
- “Yuck. Why are you being so depressing?”
- Various name calling, including: crazy, psycho, psychotic, lunatic, nut-job, etc.
The list could go on and on, as you probably already know. The problem with saying these things is not only are they seriously hurtful, but they also make those with mental illness live in fear of telling anyone or getting help. I know hearing these things didn’t encourage me to open up. Not by a long shot. When people are afraid to talk about their mental health struggles, they often find unhealthy ways to cope and end up with dangerous addictions. Especially in the case of suicidality, name-calling, making the person feel ashamed, or telling him or her to “just suck it up” could be the final straw that causes them to go through with ending their life. If you’ve experienced your loved ones saying any of these ridiculous things to you, please know the hurtful words are untrue, and you don’t need to be ashamed about seeking help. On the other hand, if you’re someone who has said these things to others, now that you know how damaging they can be, just stop, please and thank you. Don’t ever say them again.
So many people live with mental illness (60 million in the U.S. alone, or about 20-25%), yet we’re still largely afraid to talk about it. Another important note is that mental illnesses are in fact illnesses. i.e. We did not choose to feel this way. We can’t simply”get over it” but we can get treatment. We need to treat the mentally ill with the same level of compassion that we treat the physically ill. Erasing the stigma doesn’t mean giving the mentally ill a free pass to ignore any responsibilities and engage in reckless or harmful behaviors. Instead, destigmatizing allows us to openly talk about mental illness and encourage family and friends who might be suffering to get help so they can be socially engaged, productive and happy. It means recognizing that mental illness is real and it does affect people’s abilities to get through day-to-day life. Stopping the stigma allows us to say, “I see you’re struggling. What can I do to help?” or “Can I recommend _______? It really helped me when I was having a hard time.” or simply “I’m here to listen.”
While the mental health issues that I will be focusing on in my yoga business (anxiety disorders and depressive disorders) are very treatable, there are many different types of mental illnesses (at least 200 classified forms). Some of them require more rigorous treatment options than others and some could potentially increase the risk of the affected person acting violently against others. When we remove the stigma around talking about mental health issues, we are able educate in a nonjudgmental environment, notice the signs and symptoms of illness and get emergency help immediately if a dangerous situation arises. With the absence of shame, we also empower people with mental illness will more readily seek treatment, get on the road to recovery, and become even more productive members of society.
[bctt tweet=”Mental illness has no boundaries – it can affect anyone in any walk of life.” username=”alexhowlettyoga”] And the more we know, the less we discriminate. What the heck does yoga have to do with all of this? Well, a lot, actually. Yoga teaches deep, mindful breathing, self-awareness, meditation and connecting with our bodies, all of which are helpful tools for promoting mental/emotional well-being. Stay tuned for the upcoming posts in these series to learn more about yoga for mental health. I am also excited to announce that I’m currently working on creating a practical course on yoga for mental health to be released this year!
Need to brush up on your mental illness education? The National Alliance on Mental Illness website is a good place to start learning the basics.
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Disclaimer: The yoga therapy components of my teaching are based on my personal life experiences with mental illness and study of relevant subjects, and are not derived from my status as a RYT with Yoga Alliance Registry.