My parents have long promoted the importance of grateful attitudes during vacations. Yet, when I was diagnosed with tendonitis and shin splints a mere forty-eight hours before leaving on a weekend trip with friends, I found it much more difficult to stay positive.
The trip was a blur of crutching down cobblestoned streets, keeling over in pain, and feeling a tad bit sorry for myself because I could not go hiking through nature like my friends did. In between taking frequent breaks to sit down on public benches, I grew to value the moments of connection that my injury created with local residents. Cafe owners asked sympathetic questions about my giant boot. Shoppers gave me well-wishes as they opened doors for me. Our AirBnB host even offered to take us through the trails in his Jeep because I wouldn’t be able to hike there myself. My experience with an injured ankle was often unpleasant, but it was always validated by the people around me.
My experiences with mental illnesses, on the other hand, have rarely been as legitimized as my ankle injury. I have struggled with generalized and social anxiety since I was in eleventh grade. My anxiety has negatively impacted my ability and confidence in attending events and gatherings, maintaining healthy habits, and establishing relationships with those around me. If these symptoms were to occur because of any physical injury or illness, I believe that others would urge me to seek help and treatment. Instead, I have been told that my experiences are not as severe as I perceive them to be. Within the context of this weekend trip, my need to sit down and rest outside a local North Carolina cafe because of ankle pain would be validated and understood. My need to take a break because of my racing thoughts and worst-case scenario and all-or-nothing thinking would not be.
Julia, a fellow blog intern at Move for Mind, also experienced a similar tension between mental and physical health. When she used to injure herself when playing soccer in middle school, her teammates and coach supported her need to rest and recover. She did not receive the same support from them when she was struggling from anorexia and depression despite noticeable physical symptoms. She did not tell her friends on the team for fear of judgement, and when she talked to her coach, he joked that she should drink more Gatorade. Her teammates never knew that Julia eventually had to leave soccer because of her eating disorder. Julia’s story illustrates mental illnesses are just as important as physical illness, and yet are stigmatized so much more.
I believe that part of the reason for the distinction between mental and physical health is that our society tries to beautify physical illnesses. We sign our friends’ casts with sharpies, bring our loved ones bouquets of flowers, and buy Band-Aids in fun patterns and colors. We assume the best of those with physical conditions by readily offering them help, encouragement, and support as they navigate the world around them. There is no romanticization of mental illness in American society. A popular BuzzFeed video highlights this absence of romanticization through listing phrases such as “are you even trying to get better?,” “you really just need to suck it up,” and “it’s all in your head” that others say to those who are living with mental illnesses. As the video illustrates, it would be ridiculous to say these phrases to those with the flu or a broken leg. Yet, we must shoulder the responsibility of our mental illnesses because we do not receive the same assistance or acceptance as those with physical conditions. According to the Mental Health Foundation, roughly nine out of ten people living with mental illness reported experiencing negative consequences involving stigma towards their illnesses. We are expected to do the impossible by combatting both an invisible illness and its invalidation in the world around us.
The stigmatization of mental health invalidates the fact that mental health often overlaps into the physical realm. Mental illness can lead to physical illness, such as diabetes or heart issues, as well as influencing sleep patterns or smoking habits. Physical illness can also lead to mental illness. One in three people diagnosed with severe medical conditions will also observe a decline in their mental health. The reduction of healthcare with regards to mental illness means that patients are not able to seek help for both mental and physical illnesses. For people living with mental illness, mental health can intersect with physical health every single day. My anxiety often manifests as racing worried thoughts or thought spirals, but it can also influence my heart or breathing rates. I believe that invisible illnesses should be just as validated as visible ones. Yet, stating that mental illnesses are “all in your head” undermines the experiences of people like me who are living with physical consequences day in and day out.
I’m honestly not sure how to solve the stigmatization surrounding mental health versus physical health, but I know that speaking up candidly and bravely about our experiences is a start. Tennis star Naomi Osaka recently announced her decision to “take a break” from the Wimbledon tournament as a means to be more open about her mental health experience, thus inspiring sports fans everywhere. We may not all be worldwide-renowned sports stars, but Osaka proves a possibility for increased validation of mental health in our society. I personally try to normalize the discussion of my anxiety by bringing it up in conversation with friends, or to post mental health material on my Instagram. It is more than okay if you do not feel comfortable sharing your own experience - listening to others’ stories can be just as impactful. I believe that we can destigmatize mental illness in our society one conversation at a time. Who can you listen to today?