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Internalised Stigma

When you hear that someone close to you is suffering from a mental illness, you aren’t embarrassed or ashamed to be around them. This person you love who has the best sense of humor, who you share your best memories with, is being tormented by an invisible thing that looks to be a part of them, but isn’t. If you could, you would make it so that their brain would just behave itself because you know they’ve done nothing to deserve their illness.

And yet it is impossible to apply the same logic to yourself. We are so fortunate to live in a time when more and more people are willing to be open about their mental health, as my dad who started experiencing depression in the 1980s often reminds me. However it is far more difficult to get rid of the internalized stigma many people with mental illnesses feel. On an intellectual level you can tell yourself that you are a good person, that you are loved but mental illness is not rational. Having your internal voice telling you you’re worthless is part of the deal.

As someone who spent years refusing to acknowledge my depression, I understand just how difficult it is to overcome the internalized stigma that comes with having a mental illness. Growing up in an environment where depression was common, I felt I understood that regardless of how my loved ones felt about themselves they always deserved all the help in the world. While I would spend evenings hearing people tell me the exact same things I was thinking about myself, I was so scared to consider that I might have a problem, the thought wasn’t even allowed to cross my mind. Knowing that I felt down a lot of the time wasn’t enough to make me get help because that would force me to recognize that the problem wasn’t me, it was the illness.

When I eventually got help it was not because I asked for it. In my last year of sixth form my depression intensified as I was surrounded by people who were talking to me about my future when I wasn’t even sure I wanted one. It’s one of the worst feelings to have well meaning people tell you all about how bright your future is and how excited you should be when you can’t feel anything at all. You create an idealized picture of your future and tell yourself ‘this is good, I should want this’ but somehow nothing you do can give the words any meaning. In every scenario where I told people I was struggling, they were mad at me for being ungrateful for whatever advantages they thought I had. I was so ashamed these kinds of thoughts were crossing my mind that I thought I wasn’t worth the care of other people.

I was extremely lucky that my English teacher, self proclaimed Archbishop of Banterbury Jayson Burns, noticed something was wrong. Looking back it’s clear that if Burnsy had not noticed I was struggling, I wouldn’t be here today. At the time, I did not feel anything close to gratitude. In fact when the head of sixth form called me to her office and told me a teacher had reported concerns about my wellbeing, I felt betrayed. Reluctantly I agreed to see Pam, the counsellor, just so Mrs Hobson would stop worrying.

The first thing Pam did when I showed up for some break time counseling was hand me a form asking on a scale of 1-5 how much I related to a series of statements. This is a standard form you get whenever you meet a new counsellor. I filled it out and handed it back. While she counted it up I sat in a deep state of cringe, since I was clearly wasting her time by being there. In her signature tone I would get to know so well, she told me a total of 19/30 was the benchmark for depressive symptoms- the point at which Mind would offer you more free sessions. My score was 29/30. Apparently this meant there was something wrong.

And so it began, the most basic questions about my life triggered answers that I thought were fairly standard but made Pam’s face turn stoney. To hear her tell me that what I was talking about went beyond normal teenage angst, made me burst into tears. It was the first time I had been unfiltered about what I was going through and voicing all these irrational thoughts made me realize that my impressive score was more than just a number- it was indisputable proof that there was something wrong with me. I blamed my illness on the fact that I was a bad person. The shame only intensified when I landed a doctor’s appointment, even though my GP Dr. Rafiq couldn’t have been friendlier. Walking into the chemists with my prescription for anti-depressants in hand, I felt like a fraud. I kept watching the face of the woman behind the counter assuming she would be angry at me for hogging medication that other people clearly deserved more than I did.

Over the next year I got locked into a cycle of being referred to counseling then dropping out after a few sessions, believing that I hadn’t done anything to warrant all this attention. Each time I would reach crisis point a couple of weeks later and have to go back though the whole process again. I will never forget one occasion just after I’d got back from holiday, I started spiraling to the point where I was truly scared by my own thoughts, so I texted Pam saying that I didn't think I could cope anymore. She replied immediately, putting my mind to rest as best as she could. Within a week I was back seeing her again.

No one at any point told me I was crazy or that I was unloveable or anything else stigmatizing. When the people around me knew what I was going through, the kindness that came pouring out of them was unbelievable. Every time I’ve had a new person become close to me I’ve worried about how to tell them the reasons I act odd sometimes and it has never been a problem for anyone. All of this self loathing was as much a product of my own brain as my illness.

Getting over internalized stigma is incredibly difficult, but thinking you’re a bad person for feeling the way you do shouldn’t stand in the way of getting help. Everyone deserves support for their mental health, and you never need to worry that you are wasting people’s time or that anyone is judging you.

Lucy Adkin - Second Year - French and Russian Studies

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