In Defence of Mental Health Labels

People who have mental illnesses are often very good liars. We go about trying to pretend that our issues don’t exist, to minimize them. This is for many reasons, different ones for different people; to keep our jobs; to avoid abuse; the stigma and the fear of hurting our loved ones. Personally I’ve felt the last one most. You know that the truth will hurt them, even though you know they would want to know. It’s how I’ve ended up in a situation where I have told acquaintances but not my sister or cousins or best friends or anyone I knew when I was at my worst.

Whilst I know platformer is public, many of the readers will have been at the debate two Friday’s ago. I may have misinterpreted this but at one time in the debate, there was a point made that labels could create complacency in those with mental illnesses. I have to disagree with this, despite any of the flaws that labels have.

Anyone who has experienced a mental health problem will know it is not something you want. All you want is to get rid of it as soon as you can. It completely changes you, in ways you notice and in ways you don’t. You wish you could just return to how things were before it happened. The aim is to get better, however it isn’t just as simple as ‘getting over it’ or ‘faking it until you make it’. For many, just getting through a day is a struggle and is far from complacency.

An issue with labels is that they are different for different people and can often be hard to identify. Many diagnoses are based on the symptoms rather than the causes, like schizophrenia, which has been identified to have genetic causes, but not for everyone who has it. However this doesn’t invalidate these labels. This is because they make it so much easier to explain to others. Mental illnesses can often be vague or hard to describe. Sometimes it is difficult to fully explain your symptoms, especially to people without any knowledge about psychology or medicine. As you cannot express the extent of how much it affects you sometimes you need to shorten it into a label.

The need for an explanation is also necessary for many with the illness themselves. When I have panic attacks, I am more confused than I have ever been. Sometimes you don’t even realise you’re thinking in a disordered way. Sometimes it’s just how you’ve always thought. Recently I have been having counseling. It can be exhausting, emotionally and physically. You have to be honest to a stranger and tell secrets you’ve never told. However it has undeniably been helpful to me in so many ways, one of these is the perspective of someone who isn’t you. I was fourteen when I first panicked so much I lost all my senses. For two years, I frequently used to hide in toilets or start crying uncontrollably. I could list so many things that have caused panic attacks, from public transport to chemistry lessons to riding a bike or pantomime rehearsals. Even last year when I was ‘better’ I had to concentrate on not crying in a lot of my lessons. The worst part was that I never really knew why. Sometimes I could handle these situations and sometimes I couldn’t. I never really began to understand this until I got that outside view from counseling. It made me feel slightly less alone. Once I started to actually label these panic attacks and treat them as such, it helped me to understand myself a bit better.

One reason that a label reassures you is that it confirms your problems are valid. From my own experience and from what others have told me, I know sometimes just admitting you have a problem is a big hurdle to overcome. A friend of mine with BPD once told me that their diagnosis validated the way they felt, instead of worrying that they were being overdramatic.

It’s been just over two years since I wanted to commit suicide. Last year, I was no longer suicidal. However I was so terrified of going back to that place I made myself ill in a different way. Instead of admitting that my mental illness was a part of me, I constantly aimed to only have good days, be happy, sociable all the time. To be perfect.

Whenever I felt bad, I began to panic that I was ‘slipping back’. 2015 was defined by constant panic attacks. Mostly this was panicking about being anti-social; when I was suicidal I avoided talking to anyone as much as I could.

In 2015, I tried to be as social as possible and stressed when I wasn’t. Early on in the year, I had a day trip to London with my politics class. I knew that throughout the day I’d be surrounded by others who would probably be talking to their friends and having a good time. I knew that I didn’t have close friends going, meaning I’d be alone sometimes. For weeks before, I had nightmares about it, despite how trivial it really was.

Since then I’ve come to accept that sometimes I panic, sometimes I cry or feel terrible. My mental illness cannot just be erased. Earlier this year I spent four days in America with some of those same people, without any nightmares and surprisingly without any panic attacks. For me, a large part of this was because I came to accept these labels rather than be ashamed of them. I had learned that recovery isn’t about being perfect, rather learning to cope.

Lastly, someone who was very close to me used to rant about people ‘faking their mental illnesses’. He felt they were “wallowing in self pity and begging for attention” and would follow this up by saying that he didn’t mean me. Invariably my response was that he couldn’t read their minds, that people can be good at coping and that it isn’t wrong to need attention, that they need help. It’s selfish but it hurt because there’d be people who say I was ‘faking it’. I don’t think he realized how much it hurt me, someone he loved.

I’d like to finish by saying to think before you speak. You will most likely be speaking to someone who either loves someone with or has a mental illness.

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