Mental illness. Whether it’s something that people self-deprecatingly admit to or swiftly assign to the latest mass shooter, mental illness is frequently and way-too-easily appropriated for anyone’s purpose. As a not-proud sufferer of it, I grit my teeth when people describe their quirks as OCD or their assholeness as bipolar or their Monday funk as depression. I’m glad that mental illness is apparently destigmatized enough that people can joke, but these jokes swap out fear of the mentally ill (which, despite being so common, is not an official phobia) for dismissal. If everyone is “mentally ill,” then everyone can get over it, right?
That’s what neurotypical people think. To them, depression is a case of the blues, and in their experience, they’ve been able to lift themselves out of it. Because they don’t have clinical, chronic depression that makes it hard to function. To them, anxiety is the jitters, and in their experience, deep breathing works. Because they don’t have disabling panic attacks that can feel like you’re dying.
Part of it is the limitation of the English language. Despite it being such a robust and flowery language with many roots, the words for temporary distress and debilitating illness are the same. Most people don’t bother to learn about the neurological differences between the two.
And so, their superficial understanding of mental illness leads them to attribute one’s mental state to the surface effects: the ability to calm down, buck up, and get over it. Those behaviors are all supposed hallmarks of maturity, and so, especially in an age when it’s fashionable to hate people younger than 40, the increased media discussion of and freer exposure to mental illness has had a chilling effect on a true understanding of it. Rather, mental illness is considered something that people grow out of. It’s associated with millennials. It’s considered a sign of immaturity.
When I was in college was when my mental health really took a nosedive. I started to struggle to function as I had been, and I couldn’t figure out why. I had started having mental health issues when I was a teen, in the form of severe OCD. We successfully treated it with cognitive behavioral therapy and medication, and until college, I was a relatively normal high schooler dealing with high school stress. In college, my stress became a monster.
I loved my job as a peer tutor, but I started to struggle to get up in the mornings. It was as though someone was shoving a heavy wool blanket over me, trapping me in bed, where I would then fret about missing work or class so much, I would have panic attacks that caused mild seizures followed by an intense fatigue. I literally could not get out of bed, and so I started to exhibit tardiness and absenteeism. I felt the greatest shame I ever had in my life. It was important to me to be responsible, professional, and of course to show up to the classes I’d paid so much for and the job that I needed to stay afloat.
My favorite professor was also my supervisor at the tutoring center. Until these fatigue attacks started happening, I had been heavily involved with the center: developing worksheets for my fellow tutors to use, running trainings, designing promotional materials. As is my nature, I went above and beyond to do more work than I was being paid for. My supervisor loved me.
And yet when I was hospitalized for severe fatigue that I later learned was linked to clinical depression and anemia, and my mother sent my supervisor an email accompanying a doctor’s note to let her know, my recent tardiness and absences were the first thing that my former mentor whipped out. The note was apparently so harsh that my mother refused to share with me what it said, but it concluded by essentially firing me from the center and saying that I needed to grow up. I cried for days over the loss of my job and my mentor, hurt that even a doctor’s note and proof of hospitalization wasn’t sufficient to clear my name. Thing is, had my mother not admitted that I was suffering from mental health issues, the supervisor likely would have been more understanding. I don’t blame my mother—someone as educated as Dr. Bitch should have been more understanding—but fact is that mental health issues just aren’t taken as seriously as other chronic conditions.
The Americans with Disabilities Act explicitly names PTSD, depression, anxiety, and several other mental health disorders as protected conditions. I could have made a case for discrimination in my dismissal from the tutoring center. Unfortunately, many people with disabilities, not just mental health-related ones, exhibit absenteeism and tardiness, and employers gleefully point to those as reasons for firing someone, even if the disability was the cause. And in many states, you can be fired for just about anything.
However, what advocates call invisible illness is more likely to be considered a character flaw than a visible disability is. While both trigger prejudice, it’s still widely assumed that people with mental illness or pain disorders can “get over it” or are “faking,” while those who are missing limbs are “legitimately” disabled. Of course, if you add in ageist discrimination, people might not even believe you’re “actually disabled” no matter how obvious it should be.
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That’s because our society holds ableist and ageist ideas. Although they intersect with racist and sexist ideas, they’re not talked about enough. When we assume that people with mental health disorders are aggressive, a drain on society, or “off their meds,” we enable dangerous stereotypes and stigma that prevents people from obtaining help. On the benevolent side of ableism, when we suggest to people that the power of positive thinking could lift them out of their depression, we’re (1) confusing a serious neurological condition with mood, and (2) dismissing their pain and experience.
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Similarly, when we tell young people that they don’t know anything / their opinion doesn’t matter because they’re not “finished growing,” we’re (a) ignoring the science of cognitive development (for more on this, check out Barbara Rogoff’s The Cultural Nature of Human Development) and (b) dismissing their pain and experience.
My former mentor probably never realized how much her betrayal hurt me, because in her mind, I was a lazy millennial who didn’t care enough about anything to pull myself up by my bootstraps. To her, my mental health, or lack thereof, didn’t even matter…it was all about the mental fortitude needed to overcome my selfish desires. Read: maturity to overcome weaknesses.
Nowadays, people would say that allowing my doctor’s note to justify my absence would have been “coddling.” If I had a dime for every time I heard some boomer talk about “coddled millennials,” I could pay off my student loans. Those same people tend to call millennials “weak,” “sensitive,” “crybabies,” etc. In other words, they’re assigning stereotypical symptoms of mental illness to them yet denying that it could be mental illness. Instead, it’s taken as a generational thing.
Mental illness is not immaturity. And maturity might not be what you think, either. If a high-powered businessman in his 50s goes out with his buddies after work and gets smashed on whiskey, that’s “unwinding.” If a twentysomething student does it, it’s “irresponsible.” How does that make sense?
Older people seem to have “earned” the right to kick back, blow off steam and responsibilities, or have mental illness by mere virtue of living that long. I have been told that I’m “too young to have anything to worry about” and that all of my spare time should be spent on preparing for my future. When I stray from these expectations, I’m “self-absorbed” and “lazy.” When I do think about my future, I’m “entitled.” (Living wage? Pfft.) For young people, their present apparently doesn’t matter because only their future is considered important. That is, only the point at which they are an Adult. Their legal adulthood isn’t even considered “practical” until they pass 30…and even then, they’re still those “lazy millennials.”
In cases of mental illness, that means that young people’s symptoms are dismissed as functions of weakness, sensitivity, or simple lack of will to get better (too lazy to even kill themselves, I suppose). That was my experience. It took me a decade to get doctors to stop dismissing my pain as “school stress” or “growing pains” and get me the help I needed to stop feeling so miserable. Am I “grown up” now?
Denying me help on the basis of my “immaturity” was cruel at worst, ignorant at best. Because whether or not I was immature, I deserved help for my condition and not to be silenced with, “Hush, grownups are talking” or “What do you have to be sad about?”
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and that means it’s time to break the stigma and help out those who experience mental illness. First step is to educate yourself! Follow me for more articles this month or subscribe on Mailchimp. If you enjoyed this article, buy me a coffee. And if you need help, reach out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) at 800–950-NAMI or text “NAMI” TO 741741.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.