Samantha Heritage shares her experience of the stigma surrounding seeking treatment for mental health problems
“I was actually talking about something similar with my therapist last week and she mentioned…” The words had made their way out of my mouth with a date whom I had only met a handful of times. My nonchalance discussing the notion that I was seeking professional help to, gasp, speak about and cope with everyday issues that most people face, was met by his facial expression of both shock and utter confusion.
In his defence, he wasn’t in the wrong to have that sort of reaction to the openness of my comment. In today’s society it is nearly unheard of for people to simply allude to their weekly visits to a psychotherapist as if it were as common as grabbing a morning coffee on the go. However, as I was raised in a very open and mental-health-conscious family, where our mental health was monitored just as closely as that of our physical, it was a rude awakening realiaing that the rest of society feels wildly uncomfortable discussing the same.
When I began speaking openly about my weekly appointments with a psychotherapist - let’s call her Karen - I was shocked to see just how many of my closest friends were also seeking professional help alongside of me, without my knowledge. At my next wine night, which usually just turns into a ranting session to the sound of ABBA Gold, I related a topic of conversation back to a discussion I had had in the comfort of Karen’s cozy therapist chair, just like I had done with my date. I expected an air of awkwardness for revealing something that is so stigmatised, but instead I was met with responses of: “My therapist said the same thing!” or “Wow, I’m definitely going to mention that in my next session, maybe that’s the root of ____ for me”. It became increasingly clear as weeks and months went on just how many of the people I refer to as my closest friends were in the same situation as myself. Yet why is no one speaking about it?
There is an obvious stigma around the choice to get help for one’s depression, anxiety, psychosis or whatever the issue may be, yet is there not already a stigma around experiencing these issues in the first place? Whatever you may choose to do, this stigma lingers over the heads of anyone suffering with mental health problems, whether they are seeking help or not. From my own experience, if you speak about your depression publically, you receive negative judgement. Similarly, if you chose to speak about your mental health treatment, such as forms of therapy, you are also subject to others manufacturing the same damaging conclusions - that you’re unstable, a wreck, or overly emotional (none of which are true by the way). You could even argue that it’s more common to bond over shared negative experiences than it is to do so over shared healing or happiness. Take Twitter for example: there is a very prominent online culture which glorifies and romanticises shoddy mental health, making it seem desirable to wallow in one’s sad and depressive state - because it seems like most people are, and within it, they have found a community. I’m no innocent participant in this. I have found myself publically "glorifying" my depressive state through my "Sad Beats" playlists on Spotify, or satirical tweets about how down I am – because at times they are funny, and yes, make us feel less alone in our situation.
We live in a society that encourages expression of emotions in children and young people, but only if they fall into the category of happiness and contentment, creating an obvious stigma at a young age that if we feel sad or down, it can’t be spoken of in the same open manner as our gladness can. But what if we flipped the switch and made it socially acceptable, and a bonding experience per se, to not only speak openly about how messed up we are, but also how we are trying our very best to fix it? It’s obviously no easy feat to completely alter the way that society views mental illness and its treatment, but if we knew just how many people around us were in therapy, would it still be such a difficult decision to initially agree to go?
Go on and talk about it in the comfort of your close pals, be prepared to make space for the conversations to be had - even if it’s just to unpack that week’s session. So although I’m merely a 20-year-old, with a little over half an English degree under her belt, I have also experienced quite a few run-ins with mental illness in my young life, and I say get out there! Make your tinder dates uncomfortable with your self-assuredness! You may be in a depressive pit, but there is a way out, and it is okay to talk about it wherever and whenever you may wish to. We have to keep doing so until the "uncomfortable" conversations are no longer uncomfortable.