"You don’t look like someone who has a mental illness."
Do you remember that class in high school about mental health that everyone had to take?
Neither do I.
Can you think of a movie or show where a character with mental illness is a killer, drug addict, or came from an abusive home?
I can think of many.
My story challenges these stereotypes. I grew up with a loving, supportive family and have no history of abuse or trauma. My mom and dad were always there for my concerts, recitals, soccer games, and school ceremonies. They made sure my little brother, sister, and I always tried our best, they taught us to think for ourselves, and they encouraged us to stand up for what we think is right.
I carried these values with me as I grew up, which led to a great high school experience. I had a loyal group of friends and an active social life. (I proudly remained drug- and alcohol-free.) I was self-motivated, worked hard in my classes, and became a member of the National Honor Society. I was a varsity cheerleader, dancer, choir soloist, and even landed the lead role in the senior class play. I ended up graduating in 2010 with scholarships in leadership, character, and performance.
After high school, I enrolled in a two-year college where I loved my classes and professors, had my first serious boyfriend, explored new professional opportunities, and eventually graduated with a spot on the President’s List. I then transferred to a four-year school closer to home and, in May 2013, celebrated my 21st birthday (still alcohol-free) before taking my last final exam. My summer job was lined up and my schedule for senior year set. Little did I know, one week later I would have a life-changing and -defining experience.
In late May, I had a complete mental break. It was sudden, severe, and turned my world completely upside-down. I became too paranoid and anxious to be home alone, drive, or go to most public places. Even reading or writing simple words became too mentally stimulating. I was hospitalized five times over the next six months and spent a total of nearly three months in the hospital, including several weeks in the best mental health hospital in the country. I’ve been prescribed some of the strongest psychiatric medications available over the course of this battle with mental illness.
I can’t put the effect this had on my body, mind, and spirit into words. I, and the people close to me, spent a lot of time in confusion and disbelief; things just didn’t seem to add up. I came from a stable and loving household, and I had never experienced abuse or trauma. I was a part of my community, was always social and friendly, and had accomplished much academically. I had never touched drugs or alcohol. I was one year away from becoming a high school teacher. How could I have developed a crippling psychiatric disorder?
Mental illness can happen to anyone at any time in his or her life. Studies show that approximately one in five adults in the United States will experience mental illness. But even so, our society still upholds stereotypes about what kind of person is considered to be “mentally ill.” In reality, mental illness can find anyone, including the people who are most stereotypically associated with it, as well as people who buck those stereotypes, like me.
My journey has taught me just how harmful it is to make generalizations about what someone with mental illness looks like or who they are as an individual. Many people are afraid to seek help because they are worried they'll be judged or ashamed about how they feel, but seeking help doesn’t mean someone is weak, weird, or crazy: It actually means they are strong and being proactive about their life.
We need to open up the conversation about mental health issues so that everyone feels they are able to seek help. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Neither should you.
If you or someone you know is dealing with mental illness, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
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