TW. The following article references several mental health conditions, including eating disorders, suicide, self-harm, depression and anxiety.
When I was finally brave enough to tell my boss that I’d had called in sick because I been binge-purging significantly the night before, and had been doing so over the past six months due to the anxiety caused by a collective of colleagues bullying me, his blunt reply was, “Well, it can’t be that bad, can it? You still managed to upload a youtube video this week and you’ve got yourself a boyfriend now. Seems a bit suspect that your “bulimia” only affects your work hours, doesn’t it?” Needless to say, I handed in my notice within twenty minutes of this conversation.
People today are much less averse to admitting to or engaging in a discussion of mental health. Whilst there are many sectors of society which still feel closed off from discussing their mental health, primarily BAME individuals and men, we’ve come a long way since the days when Britney Spears’ was regarded as “freakish” and “attention seeking” for shaving her head and outcome of Kurt Cobain was labelled as just part and parcel of a rock star’s lifestyle. The past couple of years has seen a significant shift in how mental health is discussed, empathised with and understood. Throughout my childhood and early adolescence, my only interactions with the concept of mental health were through tabloid exposés of extreme celebrity breakdowns; they seemed to be the price paid by the rich as famous for being dragged into the lifestyle of drugs, riches and underaged fame and sexualisation.
Most of my life was spent believing mental health was an issue only famous people had to deal with, and that everything negative I had been experiencing mentally was just the general experience of being alive. It wasn’t until I was nearly twenty that the conversation was turned upon the general public, and by that time I’d already lugged myself through thirteen years of chronic depression and self-harm and found myself dying of an eating disorder.
What I’d like to stress at this point to those reading this article under the belief that it’s going to forward an argument against openly discussing mental health is that you’ve come to the wrong place. I have spent years of my life openly discussing mental health and the importance of coming to terms with our conditions and not allowing them to define our existence. People need to talk about their mental health: they need to have open and honest dialogues with their loved ones, support systems and workplaces.
I feel, however, that as a society that we’ve come to a stagnant point in our open dialogue in which the system and the government are failing to respond to and support these ever increasing conversations with the significant and instrumental societal, systematic and governmental initiatives and changes which are necessary.
I also believe more needs to be done in order to act upon the rising stress mental health is putting upon not only the medical system but also the familial, societal and economic structures it puts pressure on. Strategies also need to be put into place to support marginalised and minority groups with their mental health, who not only are usually at a disadvantage (economically, socially or geographically) to receiving mental health treatment and education, but who are also less likely to have access to professionals who are from the same ethnic and cultural backgrounds as they are, and are thus less likely to receive appropriate treatment as the education and training in the mental healthcare system has been formulated upon the understanding and examining white, cis-gendered, straight people’s experiences.
The first people who found out I was mentally unwell was the internet.
All that being said, I’m not a mental health professional. I have no authority to propose systematic changes nor comment on marginalised experiences. I’m just a woman who has decided, for her own personal reasons, to stop talking about her mental health. That’s unhealthy, I hear many silent neurons cry from inside the deep crevices of your mind, that goes against everything we’ve been working towards. To state otherwise is only to propagate a silenced, stigmatised society of bottled-up, mentally unstable individuals who are never honest and open about their struggles and thus never seek the help and support their need! Now you’ve got that off your chest, let me elaborate.
I limit elaborating the details of my mental health to a medical professional, my journal, and (to a lesser degree) my partner, a friend and one trusted relative. That’s it. To the rest of the world (my friends, my family, my colleagues, the public, etc.) I am me. I admit that I’m not always feeling great, but the details never go any further than an ambiguous statement that “I’m dealing with some things right now”. Why? Because they don’t need to know any more than that.
Up until around a year and a half ago I had spent the last four years before that openly discussing all the details of my mental health to everyone and anyone who asked. I prided myself on being a mental health advocate who was in the privileged enough position to be able to discuss mental health and the details of certain illnesses. What I learned the hard way was that being totally open about such details, despite the media’s cultivated acceptance movement of mental wellbeing and de-stigmatisation, wasn’t the right thing for me to do during my recovery.
Today I am recovered from many of the issues I suffered with during my early twenties and I am in a healthier and stronger position to reflect on my past to the public and share my experiences of recovery. Yet even now, I would never go into the details I once did, and have decided that I will not share the experiences I am currently going through or have recently gone through over the past year with anyone except the five sources I listed earlier.
You Need to Talk to Someone
So, let’s talk about how talking about mental health publically can go wrong. Before I carry on and share with you all the horrific mistakes I made in my past in the hope you will learn from them, I would like to stress once more that you need to talk about your mental health to someone. I’ll elaborate on this point further down in the article but for your own safety and wellbeing, speak to someone. If talking to someone really close to you seems daunting, reach out to a hotline and break your silence to a stranger (Samaritans is a fantastic service. I’ve told them a lot over the years).
I am not here to discourage you or to validate your logic that you, “don’t need to tell anyone” because you do. Trust me, you do. If you’re in a relationship, be open with the person you’re currently sharing your life with (or, a best friend you’ve known for years). If you have a family member who loves you unconditionally, tell them and hold their support. If it’s affecting your work, you need to speak to someone in HR or someone you trust in the organisation who will make sure you are given the support you need. If you’re frightened of overloading the person or people you’ve trusted with too much information, split your dialogue between them and a journal. It’s essential to get this stuff out of your head in every way possible.
I’m not writing this article to dismiss the essentialism and importance of discussing mental health, but what I am here to tell you is that you don’t need to tell everyone and anyone, and it’s in your best interest if you don’t.
The first people who found out I was mentally unwell was the internet.
By the time I went to university I had garnered a reasonably sized Youtube audience, nothing outstanding, but a few thousand followers at least. Between December of my first year at university to the following April, followers began commenting on my altered appearance. It seemed that I’d become very gaunt looking, my luscious blonde locks had become a thin sheet of translucent brown strands hanging from my seemingly enlarged head. My mouth, nose and teeth had somehow grown disproportionately large to my cheeks, and it wasn’t until I became fed up with the incessant comments on my videos speculating whether or not I was on cocaine that I finally confessed to having anorexia.
To this day, years later, discussing my mental health online is my biggest regret.
To my surprise, my admission was met with a warm and energetic reception. People supported me and came forward to share their own struggles. From there, my channel became an open platform about my mental health struggles and my recovery process, from anorexia to my depression, my suicide attempts, my anxiety, my chronic stress, my bulimia, my BPD…you see where this is going, don’t you?
I overshared, big time. Whilst my recovery process did inspire many others to talk about their mental health, recover alongside me, and find comfort in the relatability of my circumstance, the seal was broken and I had no way of turning back. My channel kept growing, and with growth came scrutiny from both people online and real-life acquaintances. Managers called me into their office to discuss their concerns about my ability to do my job based on what they heard me say on a video; colleagues gossiped about me; people I was interested in dating never replied to my messages once they (I can only assume) googled my name. If I was ever happy on a video I was questioned by viewers who told me it was suspicious I was seemingly so cheerful when last week I was so depressed, and thus people began speculating the legitimacy of my mental health.
It took me a long time to realise I had made a categorical mistake. I had been too invested and interested in the positive response I got from people who were telling me my videos helped them to realise that I was draining away the entirety of my being. Whilst I was being driven by the obligation and external responsibility to give more in order to help others more. I made myself more vulnerable to gossip, speculation, judgement, hatred and mistreatment, online and offline. I was professionally and personally profiled unjustly, people questioned and judged my capabilities not according to my performance but according to my mental health.
To this day, years later, discussing my mental health online is my biggest regret.
It’s been a couple of years since I decided to “shut up” about my mental health. I don’t deny my past experience, and whilst I can still appreciate and feel grateful that sharing my experience helped others on their journey of recovery. If I could go back in time and do it all over again…well, I wouldn’t. At least, I wouldn’t have done it the same way.
Discussing your mental health to the public in-situ of your circumstances isn’t safe. If I could go back in time I would have told young me to keep her mouth shut and insist that her GP refer her to therapy promptly. I could have then found a way to discuss the process of recovery with others without revealing too much of myself, without going into the details of my thought processes, and without revealing my weaknesses, deep insecurities and darkest thoughts that would be later used against me by tens of people in my real and online life.
There’s a reason why so many of us wake up with a stomach-churning sense of regret the morning after we’ve posted a depressing and exposing status about our mental health on social media, despite the love and positive support we received in response to it. Whilst it is important not to be ashamed about our mental health and to own what we are going through without feeling stigmatised, judged or embarrassed, we should, for our own sake, not give too much of ourselves away to the public.
There shouldn’t be judgement and stigma surrounding mental health, but unfortunately, there still is, despite movements’ and campaigns’ best efforts. Whilst depression and anxiety have become somewhat “quirky” issues to the point they’re being made into fashionable and “relatable” merchandise, schizophrenia, BPD, bipolar disorder, sociopathy, anorexia and OCD and many more are still wildly misunderstood and misjudged. There will always be a danger that comes with revealing too much of ourselves to subjective bystanders, be they family, friends or strangers online. Perhaps I’m overly jaded and cynical because of how such honest disclosure negatively impacted my life, but I doubt my experience is unique.
It’s so incredibly frightening to admit to anyone you’re struggling with mental health, and having that publically broadcasted can be damaging: that’s why cases like Eugenia Cooney breaks my heart. For those unfamiliar, Cooney is a 24-year-old Youtuber star with 1.5 million subscribers. Due to her emancipated and skeletal figure, Cooney’s health and mental wellbeing have been the topic of speculation for years and, to the frustration of many, has openly denied having any kind of eating disorder and claimed that her body was the result of being “naturally skinny”.
I didn’t look much different from Cooney when I was in my early twenties, and none of us are in the position to diagnose her. What I can say is that, from a former anorexic’s perspective, I get it. I didn’t fall into my illness the “traditional” way, I wasn’t chasing skinny or even dieting, but anorexia became protectively intertwined with my identity. At the same time, I resented being identified as an anorexic: that’s all I was reduced to. People didn’t see me for my skills, my personality, my interests, my passions: they just saw anorexia and treated me like a contagion. I felt like a “freak”, people stared at me and didn’t want to touch me or come close to me as if I were Smeagol, covered in dirt and slime. Very few people were kind to me during those years, I saw a very dark side of human nature and that experience taught me who to trust and invest love into.
Therefore, I can understand why if Cooney were anorexic she wouldn’t want to admit it: because then she has the “accomplishment” of being skinny, not an illness, and she still maintains her personality and identity first and foremost (in her mind anyway). She’s Eugenia and no one can call her the anorexic. I feel sorry for her, not just for her circumstance, but for the pressure she’s under. For years she’s been harassed and pestered to “leave the internet” because of her negative influence on younger viewers. Whilst I understand the fear and genuine concern people have for Cooney’s audience, I can’t help but feel so much pain for a girl who, I can only imagine as a former anorexic, battles with the darkest thoughts every day that she’s not good enough to exist to the point that she purposefully harms herself to the point of extinction, only to then have millions of people on the internet validify her inner demons.
The New Problems
Because of the at times traumatic consequences to having disclosed and revealed so much of myself in-situ in my past, I made a promise to myself to never reveal my personal vulnerabilities to a larger audience, regardless of how liberating the act of doing so feels at the time. The trouble with keeping your mental health private is that people interpret your silence as a signifier that you’re mentally sound and strong, and are thus in a position to take on the mental and emotional weight of their problems. I, fortunately, have a lot of friends but, because we’ve always been so open about our mental health, that comes with a lot of problems.
Trying to draw lines with friends about how much you can emotionally take on without revealing that you’re struggling too can be difficult. Many people who suffer from mental ill-health can likely relate to the difficulties of emotionally overburdening yourself, but from not disclosing my own mental health issues to my friends, I’ve found myself becoming a much more attentive friend. I no longer feel guilty for hijacking their situation by responding honestly to their question “How are you?”, which ultimately emotionally burdens them further as well as detracts from the reason they reached out.
This is probably a really controversial statement to make. I’m not saying that sharing your experiences is inherently selfish or that you’re hijacking when you do share your experiences, but if you’re anything like me (someone with chronic yet high-functioning depression), you’ve always got something to say about your mental health which becomes a cycle. For me personally, I didn’t want to always be negative when my friends reached out to me. I didn’t want to burden them with my thoughts when they reached out to me for my support.
I wanted to be able to give my friends my undivided attention in their times of need without thinking about myself. However, there are times when I don’t have the emotional capacity for it because of my circumstances, so I just set a polite boundary. I give them all the support and kind words I can give, but I have to limit my time and tell them honestly that “I’m sorry I can’t do more, but you know I’m here”. Provided they’re safe and I’ve done something positive, that’s usually all they need.
People will argue you need to be honest with your friends, and if you find yourself in a position where sharing your mental health with all of your friends has been helpful then please, ignore this point and continue doing what you’re doing. For me, however, learning and accepting that I didn’t need to tell all of my friends my mental difficulties was more liberating than all of those previous social media statuses about my wellbeing combined.
Organise Your Support Network
As I stressed earlier, I have five sources of support: my partner, a GP, a family member, a dear friend and my journal. My journal serves as my overflow and brain dump; anything I cover in meditation, anything that has been plaguing me for a day or so, gets dumped there. I extract the details from my head and categorise my thoughts: are they manageable, yes or no? If yes, what’s a plan of action I can take to handle this? If no, who should I turn to for help?
If I haven’t been able to tackle a recurring dark thought or feeling, I turn to my partner and express my concerns in more detail, or my family member if I feel they would have a more insightful opinion (nothing against my lovely boyfriend, but my family member has known me since I was born, and therefore has more insight into a lot of issues I experience).
What I discovered when I stopped talking about my mental health to everyone was the beauty of privacy: I gained a sense of self that I lost to my mental illnesses. I no longer felt the public pressure of having to recover or the pressure of having former classmates checking up on my profile to see if I was still “mental or not”. By minimising my expression of mental health to a few core individuals, I have someone always looking out for me who knows what state I’m in and is in a position to get help should I need it.
When I’m more removed from my own story I’ll be ready to share it with the world and hope that it helps a few people out there who are struggling with something similar. Until then, put your own gas mask on before you help others put on theirs.