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We share the details of our physical lives so willingly: our latest diet, our kid’s need for braces, maybe a family member struggling with heart disease. But when it comes to mental illness, everything is under wraps. The shame and stigma surrounding mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder and anxiety, are the biggest obstacles when it comes to getting help. It’s time we started looking at mental health the same way we do physical health.

This article is part of How-To Geek’s Mental Health Awareness Day. You can read more about what we’re doing here.

I broke my elbow when I was about seven years old, tripping over a rock in my yard. I went straight to my parents, got ushered to the emergency room, and was patched up promptly. But a few years later, in the throes of my first bout with depression, I didn’t go to my parents, and I didn’t get medical help, so I wasn’t patched up immediately. (Not that depression is easily patched, if ever.) It was even more of an emergency than my broken arm, but I didn’t think I was “sick,” and I was ashamed to talk about it or even admit it to myself.

Unlike other health conditions, mental illness is often seen as a sign of weakness. We’d never tell someone with breast cancer to “just get over it” or work on their willpower, but that’s the advice people with eating disorders, substance abuse problems, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues hear all too often. And those suffering with mental illness also often think of it themselves as weakness. Journalist Andrew Solomon says:

People still think that it’s shameful if they have a mental illness. They think it shows personal weakness. They think it shows a failing. If it’s their children who have mental illness, they think it reflects their failure as parents.

I’ve lost people I’ve loved to suicide, and each time only the closest family members and friends knew the true cause of death. Maybe these deaths could’ve been prevented, maybe not. But we don’t talk about mental health enough–or, if we do, it’s often too late.

Those of us with mental health issues who ever do get up the nerve to talk to someone about them risk being doubted and criticised. “You don’t have real anxiety,” someone once told my friend. “You have so much to be happy for, how can you be depressed?” a counselor once said to me (a counselor!). I’ve also heard people state that those who commit suicide are simply selfish and that others with mental illness were “just looking for attention.”

The truth is, mental illness is isolating for both the person with mental illness and those close to them. It makes everyone uncomfortable. As Andrew Steward said in his TEDxDU talk, “When someone breaks their arm, we rush to sign their cast. When someone is diagnosed with mental illness, we run the other way.”

Even worse, people with mental illness often face discrimination or abuse–not just in the workplace, but in the community and in hospitals too. When news breaks of crime or violent incidents, people are quick to ask if the person was schizophrenic, depressed, or bipolar. “The tendency to connect people’s crimes to mental illness diagnoses that are not in fact associated with criminality needs to go away,” Solomon says.

Our current mental health system doesn’t help much either, and only 41% of adults in the US with a health condition received mental health services in the past year. Not only can the cost of treatments be prohibitively expensive, it is frustratingly difficult to find a psychiatrist or therapist that can really treat you. In college, when I was first looking for help, one psychiatrist kept taking the Freudian approach with me and misinterpreting, I think, every relationship I mentioned, however slight. Another flat out told me he’d prescribe me medication but didn’t “do” counseling. Thanks, bub.

These kinds of things leave those of us with disorders feeling hopeless and less willing to speak up, hiding in shame rather than seeking support. According to the National Health Institute, most people with mental illness wait almost a decade after symptoms appear before seeking treatment.

But mental illness is just like any chronic physical condition. It can be managed with counseling and/or medication, and there will be both good and bad days. As debilitating as mental illness can be, it isn’t–and shouldn’t be–the defining characteristic of a person any more than, say, being allergic to pollen or having high blood pressure should be.  

All that said, things are getting better. There’s more awareness these days about mental health issues and more support groups, thanks in large part to the internet. Many famous people are talking more openly about their experiences, like Wil Wheaton on depression and anxiety, Community creator Dan Harmon on Asperger’s, and Carrie Fisher on bipolar disorder.

Awareness weeks and months help too, like May’s Mental Health Awareness month. The best thing we can do, at any time, is talk about mental illness the way we talk about other health issues–openly, with empathy and a desire to understand, and separating what the person is suffering with from the person him- or herself. As Mental Health America says, “Sharing is the key to breaking down negative attitudes and misperceptions surrounding mental illnesses, and to show others that they are not alone in their feelings and their symptoms.” One day we will get rid of the social stigma that surrounds mental illness. It’s going to take work, but we hope that day comes soon.

Image Credit: Glanfranco Blanco/Flickr