‘The humanity we share is more important than the mental illnesses we may not.’
- Elyn Saks
After viewing the inspirational TED talk ‘A Tale of Mental Illness – From the Inside’ by Elyn Saks, a woman with schizophrenia, these words have resonated profoundly.
‘What’s Left of Me?’
Mental illnesses of all kinds can make us feel as though our identity has been stripped away – our hopes, our vitality, our humour, our passions, our motivation, our drive. Even our sense of what is real, what we can trust.
Feelings of disconnection from other people are incredibly common when experiencing mental health difficulties. The feeling of being fundamentally ‘different’ from other people can often pervade our daily lives, to the point where we feel isolated and alone, as though we are the only person in the world experiencing this pain, this fear, this struggle.
Identifying with the Illness
After experiencing a mental illness for a long period of time, we can fall into identifying ourselves with that illness. It feels as though it has taken everything else from us, and so it’s all that’s left of us as a person – the loss of self in the midst of the mental illness can hurt more deeply than the illness.
And this is where another of Elyn Saks’ poignant statements comes to the fore: ‘There are not schizophrenics. There are people with schizophrenia.’ This not only applies to schizophrenia, but to depression, social anxiety, eating disorders, substance use, bipolar disorder…
One of the vital aspects of therapy is helping people to reclaim themselves, and a significant but small shift is in how we describe the experience. When we move from ‘I’m depressed’ to ‘I have depression’, we open up a new perspective – one that allows us to contemplate being a person again. A person who may struggle with low mood, anhedonia and irritability, but who may also strive to reclaim an interest that was lost, or rebuild friendships that have been neglected.
We don’t say, ‘I am a stomach ache.’ Why should we label ourselves as mental illnesses? Diagnostic labels are not identities – they are tools to help us to understand our common struggles and seek appropriate help, support, and interventions. A common language for us to use not to stigmatise or dismiss, but to understand.
‘So It’s Not Just Me?’
Often in therapy, we say, ‘What you’ve just described is actually so common that we have a name for it.’ These moments are crucial – thoughts or feelings that were so isolating and confusing become normal, common, shared by others in similar situations. They are thoughts or feelings that are understood by professionals who have seen them time and time again, but still respect that all this is new and fresh for the person just learning that are not, in fact, alone.
Things such as:
- ‘Mind reading’ – an attempt to know or assume what someone else is thinking, often in an effort to avoid or predict judgement.
- ‘Catastrophisation’ – the tendency to jump to the ‘worst case scenario’.
- ‘Thought action fusion’ – a common feature in OCD in which we believe that having a thought is as bad as carrying out the same thought (e.g., thoughts of hurting others are as bad as actually assaulting someone).
Psychoeducation is a vital tool to help people discover that their experience is not aberrant or ‘wrong’, but often an understandable reaction, adaptation or attempt to survive in exceedingly difficult circumstances.
When we see ourselves as ‘just an illness’, this is difficult to see. But when we see we are a person attempting to survive life, to cope, we can start to see how these experiences make sense:
- How someone with panic disorder who was warned of danger as a child learned to by hypervigilant to potential harm, and therefore catastrophises.
- How someone with social anxiety tries to ‘mind read’ others to protect themselves from judgement.
- How someone with depression who was criticised learned to withdraw to protect their self-esteem.
- How someone dissociates to try to protect themselves from overwhelming emotions they haven’t yet learned to work with.
- How someone with OCD feels chronically responsible for others because they had to grow up too quickly, and experiences intense guilt when they have a thought about resenting another.
Whether or not we’ve experienced depression, or an anxiety disorder or eating disorder or any other, we can extend compassion, and empathy, and interest. We have all felt pain, and loneliness, and fear. We have all wanted to withdraw from life at some point.
We know it hurts deeply to be rejected, or dismissed, or derided. We know it feels profound to have someone care, to listen, who will not judge. Who makes an attempt to understand, even if they cannot grasp the full picture. Who does not pretend they ‘get it’, but admits to what they don’t know, and extends curiosity to find out more.
These are the qualities we can extend to one another to continue the process of breaking down the stigma around mental ill health.
You can watch Elyn Saks’ inspirational TED talk here:
If you’re feeling alone in a struggle with mental health, you don’t have to keep struggling by yourself. You are welcome to call our team on 028 9065 0060 to book in to speak to one of our therapists.