Trigger warning: This article contains details about mental illness and suicide.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder this February. I first sought medical help in March 2021 and was misdiagnosed with depression. This was probably because my depressive symptoms were at the fore at the time and I hadn’t had a manic episode. I also knew little about mental illnesses and was very unsure of what was happening to me.
The mental agony and pain that I’ve experienced over past two years is not even remotely akin to any other pain I’ve felt through any physical affliction that has befallen me before. Despite this, the amount of sympathy I’ve got for my mental illness isn’t even the fraction of what I got for minor annoyances like headaches or sprains, let alone for more serious physical illness/injuries.
I am not writing this to seek attention or sympathy. I am writing this to make a point about how society treats physical and mental pain differently – even though they can be equally unbearable.
This happens for several reasons. Mental agony is invisible. Nobody other than you can see that your mind is on fire because that fire is invisible. You feel like your head is going to explode, but you cannot explain to someone else how it feels like to experience such a thing. Hopelessness cannot be seen or explained in the same way we see or explain a physical affliction.
Matt Haig, in his brilliant memoir Reasons to Stay Alive, has written how he once walked to the edge of a cliff and almost took final step. But the thought that there were people who loved him stopped him. He goes on to write,
“…they didn’t know what it was like, what my head was like. Maybe if they were in my head for ten minutes they’d be like, ‘Oh, okay, yes, actually. You should jump. There is no way you should feel this amount of pain. Run and jump and close your eyes and just do it. I mean, if you were on fire I could put a blanket around you, but the flames are invisible. There is nothing we can do. So jump. Or give me a gun and I’ll shoot you. Euthanasia’.”
Everything is bleak. The pain and suffering can be too much – so much that as many as 800,000 decide to end their lives on a yearly basis because of it. People hugely underestimate the amount of pain that someone dealing with a mental illness can experience.
The biggest factor as to why society at large still doesn’t quite fully understand is because of our incoherent discourse on mental health and our lack of awareness, which has led to a social stigma. If someone is ignorant about mental health, it’s possible that they would also lack empathy for people who have a mental illness.
“Why do you think you’re depressed,” people generally ask someone with depression – as if there is an external reason that they can reason them out of it. Discontent and sadness are not depression. To tell someone to just “snap out of it” is not the right way to go about it. Such rhetoric really undermines what that person is going through. It also encourages victim blaming by making that person feel like depression is their fault. It’s not uncommon to hear people call depression a “state of mind” — something that clearly puts the blame on the person and their lifestyle choices.
You’re not strong enough to face the world.
You’re exaggerating minor annoyances.
Stop acting crazy.
It’s all in your head.
You’re being overdramatic.
This too shall pass.
Just don’t worry about it.
These are are some of the many irresponsible statements that one should never say to someone dealing with a mental health issue, yet such statements are repeatedly bombarded on sufferers.
When I first told someone that I was bipolar, their first reaction was, “Just power through it, boy. Don’t worry about it. We are all bipolar, aren’t we?”
Depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet. It kills more people than most forms of violence — warfare, terrorism, domestic abuse, assault, gun crime — put together. Yet people don’t think depression is really that bad. If they did, they wouldn’t say the things they say. In our attempt to create a more acceptable society for those who suffer from depression and its friends, the first step forward will be to educate ourselves about what it is, how it affects the sufferer, and what can we do to help them?
The most important step you can take as an individual is to lend your ear to someone when they need it and ask them to seek medical help. Don’t call them lazy. Don’t undermine their suffering. Be a non-judgemental listener. Show compassion.
It’s high time that we developed a collective consciousness about mental health. One of the ways to destigmatise mental health is to openly talk about it – whenever possible – even though it’s not always easy when there’s so much stigma around it.
Amandeep Luthra is a bibliophile. He loves writing polemical essays.