I’m 31 years-old and I’ve lived with depression and anxiety since I was about eight. Growing up, I was an only child. I was bullied relentlessly in school, dropped out of high school and got my GED to start college early. I cut and burned myself often as a teen, abusing myself just to feel something less painful than what was going on inside my own head. Luckily, I traded self-harm for tattoos years ago, which has been a far more positive, productive form of release.

I love animals, travel, reading, and writing. I have a 10-year-old son whom I cherish above all else. I have dived with sharks, I have given birth without an epidural, and I would do either one again.

Mental illness. It’s a term we hear in the media cycle daily, but a stigma still hangs around it, not unlike those commercials for antidepressants where a little black rain cloud of despair follows one poor, tragic soul wherever he may go while everyone around him basks in sunlight and general merriment.
I can tell you from personal experience, for people who live with mental illness, that stigma is real.

I try not to take it personally. I welcome with open arms the attempts of those who, whether they share an actual understanding of mental illness or not, at least try to say the right things and lend support where support is needed.

As with anything else in life, the way people respond to you having a mental illness will likely be a mixed bag. Think of a new haircut: if you have honest friends, some of them will say they love it, others will say they liked your hair better before and still other won’t have noticed your hair because, well, it isn’t on their own head. (We all have those friends!) At the end of the day, your hair really isn’t keeping any of them up at night.

With mental illness, there’s a difference. We do tend to keep our loved ones up at night, and in many cases, such concern is warranted. The stigma surrounding mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia come mostly from a lack of understanding, not a lack of empathy.

My disease isn’t visible unless you know what you’re looking for, and really, who you’re looking at. A person living with mental illness has likely developed various healthy and unhealthy ways of coping. If they’re too good at ‘coping’ or they isolate themselves, they could almost keep their illness nothing more then a horrible, hidden secret. Nothing – let me repeat, nothing – is worse for the depressed or anxious mind than to be isolated and inactive.

Personally, I have to fight – no, I have to battle – the urge to practice avoidance when things are not going well. When I need support more than ever, even having a conversation can seem like more effort than I’m capable of. Leaving the house? Sometimes you can’t even leave your bed.

If you care about someone who struggles with mental illness, call them. Even if you know they screen their calls and don’t always return calls, call them anyway. Text them if possible, you will likely get a quicker response. Your simple text could even turn their whole mood around, at least for a little while.

If a loved one had a broken hand, you’d help them. You would cut their meat if they needed you to, you would help them dress, you would show them kindness. You would do this even if it were a pain in the ass, because you could clearly see with your own eyes they were incapable of doing it for themselves at that particular moment.

With mental illness, as millions of us know, that kind of understanding and assistance can be rare. Maybe it’s similar to childbirth, cancer, or jumping out of an airplane; if you haven’t been there, you really can’t fully grasp it. You can imagine and empathize, but your muscle memory doesn’t have that particular, life-altering experience mapped into it.

So, what can you do? Talk to people who share your muscle memory. There are numerous forms of support for those suffering mental illnesses, but there are also places family members and loved ones can turn when they feel they don’t understand the situation enough to help improve it, which is often their goal.

Family members need support, too. But just as it is often up to us as patients to seek our own care, friends and family members must realize that if they really want to help their loved one, the onus is on them to seek the information or support they need to better understand. (The National Alliance on Mental Illness can help. Get valuable resources at their website. https://www.nami.org/ )

Mental illness is not just a cartoon black cloud that follows you around. It’s not just missing out on walking the dog because you can’t get off your couch in a darkened room, until you pop the ad’s magic pill, and suddenly a beam of sunlight appears through your window and you follow it outside into the bright, shining day and your bright, shining future. (Can you imagine a commercial for a cancer treatment that showed a stick figure patient with a sad face carrying around a floating cancer cell on a string like a balloon? Then taking the magic pill, popping the balloon with a pin and just “getting on with life?” It’s really a bit simplistic and insulting.)

With any disease, with any treatment, there’s always more to it than the quick fix. The most important thing people without mental illness can try to understand is that for us, this is forever. This is who we are and we’re doing the best that we can. We are not cartoon characters chased by clouds and we do not spend our lives on the couch (though we might spend days at a time there, just as you might do if you had the flu or were recuperating from chemo). We are parents, siblings, friends, children. We are human beings with our own sets of troubles and crosses to bear, no more, no less. That is something everyone should be able to relate to.

(If you feel you or a loved one is in immediate crisis, seek medical attention or utilize the Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK. It bears stating the obvious: call 911 if you are seriously concerned for your safety or the safety of others. For more information on how to help a person in crisis, click here.)


Jennifer Waite is a mother, freelance writer and photographer. She currently covers entertainment news for Examiner.com, and has written thousands of articles on current events, health, travel and parenting for various outlets since 2009. Her content has received more than five million views collectively. For inquiries, email: jennifer_waite@comcast.net