I would argue that the hardest part about being mentally ill is the fact that people who are not mentally ill don’t understand the way disorders can affect a person, and thus expect people with mental health problems to operate in the same way they do.
One of the biggest struggles people with depression face is exhaustion, causing them to be unable to get out of bed. Many neurotypical people will tell them they just need a regular sleep schedule, they need to eat healthier, or they need to exercise. While these suggestions come from a good place, it’s not that easy for those who suffer from depression to just change their behavior.
In addition to fatigue, depression also causes feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. So it’s incredibly difficult for mentally ill people to overcome these symptoms. These pressures to behave “normally” typically amplify symptoms of depression: people with depression end up feeling even more distressed because they can’t carry out the daily activities that people expect them to be able to do.
There is also a common belief that people with depression can just choose to be happier; that they just need to change their lifestyle. Let me go ahead and tell you: that is definitely not how it works.
Depression occurs due to improper brain function; it’s definitely not like depressed people choose to be sad and feel hopeless all the time. Constantly being bombarded by the idea that they can just “snap out of it” and choose to be happy causes people with depression to feel guilty for being depressed, which, in turn causes their feelings of helplessness to spiral even deeper.
The same thing happens to people who struggle with anxiety. The common thought is that patients diagnosed with an anxiety disorder just need to face their fears head on to feel better. What most people don’t understand is that feelings of anxiety are accompanied by physical reactions: quickened heart rate, increased blood pressure, difficulty breathing, lightheadedness and dizziness, and sometimes, even syncope (fainting). So it’s not really functional or beneficial for those who suffer from anxiety to just “face their fears.”
Another common belief among those who are not mentally ill is that it’s unhealthy for people to “rely” on medication as treatment for their disorder. What these people don’t seem to understand is that many mental illnesses are due to chemical imbalances in the brain. Most cases of depression are caused by a reduction of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, the “happy chemicals.”
In people who don’t suffer from depression, their brains produce the normal amount of serotonin and norepinephrine for them to be happy, to feel motivated, to feel energized. However, the brains of people who struggle with depression do not produce enough of these chemicals, which is what causes feelings of hopelessness and despair. What antidepressants do is help the brain produce more of those chemicals so that people with depression can have the same level of neurotransmitters as neurotypical people do, allowing them to more easily complete simple, daily tasks.
As you can see, taking antidepressants to treat depression is not “relying” on medicine; it’s the same as people who take betablockers to regulate their heart rate. Their bodies can’t do it on their own, so they take medicine that does it for them.
These beliefs people hold about how the mentally ill should act are incredibly toxic. Mentally ill people end up taking on these beliefs – that they should behave more normally and that they shouldn’t take medicine. This causes the illness to become even worse. Expecting a mentally ill person to act like they’re not mentally ill is a huge hindrance to recovery.
Most of these beliefs about how mental disorders manifest in people’s behavior simply come from lack of knowledge. Most people just don’t understand how depression works, what causes it and what the repercussions are. This is why it is so important to talk about mental health and to give information to people who don’t know how it works.
If we continue holding out the belief and expectations we have now, we will continue to be caught in this cycle of neurotypical people telling people with mental disorders to just act normally, which causes people who struggle to feel guilty, ultimately worsening their disorder. If we are ever going to break free from this cycle, we all have to become more educated about how mental illnesses affect people and about what we can do to make it better.