The Taboo of Mental Illness

A Secret Not Worth Keeping

WORDS BY: ELISSA SALDANA
DESIGN BY: CATHERINE KIM
 

Picture this: You have diabetes, and every time you need to get your insulin shots, you have to hide from people. You can’t tell anyone at work or school about your illness because they might treat you differently. They might label you as “weird” and exclude you from the group. So you have to come up with fake stories every time you go to the doctor so people won’t find out about your diabetes.

Well, I think it’s safe to say that the above scenario is highly unlikely. Why would anyone be embarrassed of having diabetes? Or asthma? Or cancer? You can’t help getting any of these things. I mean, it's not like anyone chooses to get sick.

So why is it different when it comes to mental illness? Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), they are all mental illnesses. The only difference between these and asthma or cancer or diabetes is that the latter are physical. Mental illness is actually a lot more common than most people think. As a matter of fact, according to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), one out of five Americans (18 and up) suffer from a mental illness every year. That is equivalent to an approximate 43.8 million Americans who are struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, or schizophrenia.

Yet, our society has made it extremely difficult to be open about having a mental health problem. If you think about it, it’s quite ridiculous. I mean our mind and brain are just another part of our bodies. We should be able to openly discuss our struggles with a mental illness as we are with discussing our struggles with cancer.

Dr. Brad Compliment, who is a psychologist and the director of the Counseling And Psychological Services (CAPS) here on campus, believes we have made some progress in getting people to talk about mental health. However, there is still a lot more work to get done.

“In the past, it has been a topic that had a lot of taboo attached to it,” Compliment said. “For some, mental illness really was an area that people did not feel comfortable at all talking about. Oftentimes because people didn’t understand it.”

Tania Robles, a student at Cal State Long Beach, was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder when she was in high school. She believes a big part of the problem is that people simply don’t know much about mental illness.

“Before I was diagnosed bipolar, my family did not know what bipolar was. They probably thought that, ‘Oh, that’s just something crazy that happens; it’s not going to happen to us,’” Robles said.

The truth is that not being able to talk about it can make a person suffering from a mental illness feel even worse. Time to Change, a growing movement in England dedicated to ending mental health discrimination, spoke to over 7,000 people with mental health problems.

The group discovered that nearly two-thirds of those affected feel isolated (64 percent), worthless (61 percent), and ashamed (60 percent) because of discrimination they have faced.

“I feel that if more people come and say, ‘I’m dealing with this, I’m dealing with that,’ they would understand, and they would be like, ‘You know what? I’m not the only one going through this,’" Robles said. "It’s more common than most people think."

It’s time that our community takes mental health seriously. When we break a bone, have asthma, cancer or diabetes, we take it seriously. We do what is needed in order to heal and get better. So why do we discriminate our mental health so much? Isn’t our mind and brain just as vital for our well-being?

“People becoming aware of issues regarding mental health – [it] can be a family concern. It doesn’t have to be something the family has to be afraid of,” Compliment said. “I always tell this to anybody I see – There’s something about being able to talk to somebody else and communicating, and being able to freely talk about their mental health concerns. That in itself, getting it out of a person’s interior and onto their exterior life, can be a very beneficial thing for somebody, more than anybody knows.”

So what is it really like to live with a mental illness?

It’s tough, very tough, and extremely exhausting. How do I know? Well, I know because I have one. I have OCD, anxiety and depression. My OCD consists of obsessing over pretty much everything being done and organized a certain way. My school morning routine takes about two hours, but that’s not including breakfast or wearing any makeup. It takes me two hours to simply shower, brush my hair, and put my clothes on. This is because my mind feels the need to fix my clothes over and over again until “they feel just right.” If I were to wear makeup to school and curl or straighten my hair, I would actually need at least four hours to get ready. And this is just getting ready in the mornings. I have rituals for pretty much everything – getting ready to watch a movie, do my homework, have dinner, the way the towels should be arranged in the bathroom, etc.

But believe it or not, my time-consuming rituals are not the worst part about having OCD. The worst part is what happens when someone moves or dares to rearrange my things, or when unexpected events come up and change the plan of the day I meticulously put together in my head before I even got out of bed.

At first, I thought I was just a perfectionist and a mean person for getting so mad at my family members because they move things around the house. Then I realized I had no control over the reaction my mind was having. For example, to come home and see something out of order causes my mind a huge amount of fear and anxiety. My palms start sweating, my heart rate rises, I get palpitations, and consequently my face starts twitching. I start cracking my wrists and ankles uncontrollably and rearranging my clothing over and over again. And I want to stop. I do. I want to stop really bad, but I just can’t, and this makes me even angrier and my anxiety rises even more.

It got to the point when I simply didn’t want to get out of bed because I knew what was coming. I knew that the moment I put my foot off that bed, my rituals, obsessions and compulsions would start all over again. At the end of the day, my mind was so drained and exhausted that I couldn’t help thinking I just didn’t want to wake up anymore. This is when I realized I needed to be brave and get help because I could no longer do this alone. This thing was taking over my life and was hurting the person I love the most. And I just couldn’t have that happen.

My mind still fights me every minute and every hour of the day, and I fight it back, because I know what I do isn’t normal and I want to stop. I want to be productive, I want to get ready fast. I want my partner to be able to move things around the house without being afraid I’m going to snap at him. And as hard as it is to struggle with this illness every day at every hour of the day, coming out and admitting it to myself and my loved ones was just as hard. To even say, “I am going to therapy” or “I want to see a psychologist” was very difficult.

But I just couldn’t hide it anymore. Even though talking openly about my illness is still pretty tough, the fact that I am now able to share it with someone feels so incredibly good. Just to be able to talk openly about how I’m feeling is so liberating that it even makes fighting my OCD a little easier. Not having to hide what I am going through has given me so much strength and the courage I needed to challenge my OCD.

Like many other people who are suffering from a mental illness I was embarrassed about my illness. I was afraid people were going to judge me and think I’m just crazy or weird.

But you know what? I am not crazy. My brain has a biochemical imbalance that causes obsessive and intrusive thoughts that lead to compulsions – just like a cancer patient suffers from an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of their body. My illness just takes place in my mind and brain. Both illnesses are treatable and can be controlled with medication and therapy.

Notice I said, “I have OCD” not “I am OCD.” It is important for people to realize that those suffering from a mental illness are still themselves. Meaning, your friend with anxiety, OCD, or bipolar disorder is still your friend. He or she is still the same person they were before you found out about their mental illness. So there is not need to label them, discriminate them, or isolate them.

And sure, there will always be misinformed people who will judge me. But hey, people will judge regardless. It’s in our nature. So for my sake and mental health I’ve decided not to hide, and you shouldn’t either. Don’t let the ignorance of others interfere with your progress. Remember… “Always do what you want and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” –Bernard M. Baruch.