Why honesty is the best policy when dealing with mental health

Dealing with a mental illness is tough enough, even without the stigma. Alice Kinsella advocates how honesty is always the best policy.

It’s seven am on a Monday. Your phone is vibrating furiously, insisting that you wake up. With a groan, you realise what lies ahead. There are papers due, three of them, and another society night at the end. Plus, it’s your mate’s 21st. You are living the exhilarating life of a student. Yet all you can feel is a haunting blackness crawling in your stomach. It’s as if you once swallowed a seed, a seed of doubt and fear, and suddenly it began to grow within you, filling your veins with exhaustion and disillusionment. The only thing that seems feasible is lying in bed, watching the slow relentless roll of clouds flow past the window.  You could be dealing with mental illness. You are not alone.

I was sixteen when I first sought help for mental illness. I was young, confused, and for a long time unaware of what was wrong with me.  Through a chaotic whirlwind of what everyone assumed was teenage hormones, I began a tumultuous journey of acknowledging, and dealing with, mental illness.  Unfortunately, my experience in adolescent mental health services gave me a great deal of insight into the stigma and prejudice that we continue to fight today. My psychologist, an elitist who was more concerned with me achieving high Leaving Cert points than being healthy, assured me that no good could come from telling others of my illness. In particular, he emphasised that my university should not know as it could tarnish my academic career and hold me back in my future endeavours.  In my eyes, this confirmed what I’d already assumed. I thought it was good of him to warn me. What if I’d been honest and ruined my future?  So for three years, I harboured my condition like a dirty secret. I finished secondary school, started college, and moved away from home. Everything appeared to be going swimmingly; it was all I’d ever wanted.  From the outside, I was living the dream.

At 18, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. But things weren’t going as well as they appeared. I seemed to be losing my zest for life. I became lethargic and lost hope for happiness. My levels of anxiety increased and I was reluctant to participate in the life I had found myself in.  I berated myself daily as I failed to see the joy around me. Day by day, my condition deteriorated. I failed to attend lectures and lost enthusiasm in friendships. Encircled by fear and detached from reality, I found the continuation of ordinary life impossible. The details of the months that followed are unimportant, but by the end of the academic year I had dropped my course and was in the care of College psychiatric services. With their help, I regained the ability to function from day to day. Today, I am well on my way to being healthy again.  But the question remains: why did it take me over four years to recuperate fully? While there seems to be a growing awareness about mental illness and suicide prevention in Ireland, why was it still so difficult to recover?  It was the shame I felt, and unwillingness to share the truth with those around me, that backed me into a corner. I was trapped by my illness. I felt there was no escape. I did not understand it fully, and assumed no one else would either. This shame was by no means my fault alone.

“We are students of Trinity College, we are supposed to be excelling, not barely keeping our heads above water.  It is easy to convince yourself that this is true, but this attitude only plunges you deeper into darkness. It is by admitting to yourself there is nothing to be ashamed of, and asking for help that you can finally begin to recover.”

The advice I had been given at sixteen illustrated to me the deep-routed prejudice we face against mental illness – even in areas where you would not expect it.   It was only when I realised that there were no other options that I took steps in the right direction. There was something deeply wrong with me and I had to seek help.  It was my last option. It was also the best thing I’ve ever done.  As I continued to get better, I realised the importance of being honest about my illness. It was lying about it that had led to the extremity of my situation in the first place. How could I expect others to accept mental illness as an unfortunate part of life, if I wasn’t willing to accept it myself? So, I was honest. I was honest with the doctors, with the college, with my parents and my friends. The vast majority of people were unbelievably understanding and helpful.  Today, mental illness is still very much a part of my life. To an extent, I believe it always will be – but I am no longer ashamed of it. It is no more my fault than if I had blue eyes or a broken leg.  Being honest about illness has been a large part of my recovery. It has helped me eradicate the added pressure of the shame of my condition and learn that I am not alone.

Now that I am healthy, I have begun to look around at my peers and wonder how many others suffer today as I did in the past. How many refuse to admit to themselves and others that they are ill and need help? Being a college student and dealing with mental illness is by no means easy. Everyone tells you these are supposed to be the best four years of your life. We are students of Trinity College, we are supposed to be excelling, not barely keeping our heads above water.  It is easy to convince yourself that this is true, but this attitude only plunges you deeper into darkness. It is by admitting to yourself there is nothing to be ashamed of, and asking for help that you can finally begin to recover. From my experience of the health services in College, the attitude is one of extreme care and understanding. My fears of being honest were unfounded.  The stigma regarding mental illness is a vicious circle. We are ashamed of our own sickness, and will not be honest because we think we are alone. We think we are alone, because no one else is honest and they themselves are ashamed. The only way to combat stigma once and for all if to each be honest, both with ourselves and with those around us, about how mental illness affects us.  I wanted to write this article for many reasons.

One reason was so as not to think myself a hypocrite. It is easy to tell others to be open about mental illness and be guarded yourself. A lot of attention has been given to suicide awareness and mental illness in the past. This is wonderful, but the only way to truly tackle it is by being open and educating ourselves, as well as others, about it.  Today, I find no shame in my relationship with mental illness. I do not hide it and tell people freely when the occasion arises. More often than not I am treated with curiosity and understanding, although still the occasional blush.  It is not for the greater good alone that I like to be honest about my illness. I find that coping with mental illness becomes much easier once you accept it, and tell others about it. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, it is something that proves your strength every day as you keep going.  I call on anyone else who reads this, and feels a sense of familiarity, empathy, or perhaps shame, to do the same. Be honest. Be open.  We are lucky today to be a part of the generation that wants to see this kind of change. Across the country, people are battling stigma. See Change, the movement brought to us by the National Stigma Reduction Partnership, encourages people to tell their stories in an effort to combat stigma. They work in many ways to battle negative attitudes towards mental health problems. Please visit http://www.seechange.ie if you wish to get involved.