The Stigma Around the Dark Side of Mental Health

Today I want to talk about something important, but is often discussed in a negative way. It’s something people who do not experience it often don’t understand. Those who do experience it are often put down, harassed, and bullied. I want to talk about self-harm.

Like all mental health issues, self-harm is a stigma that is often hidden away. Those who experience it are shamed into hiding their issues. The stigma that surrounds mental health makes talking about any aspect of mental health difficult. Unless you have surrounded yourself with people who are understanding, supportive, and caring you are more likely to experience the negative side of sharing your experiences. Having depression or anxiety is one thing, but sharing with someone about your self-harming is another story…almost on the same level as passive suicidal thoughts.

Even though I’m sure most of you know what self-harming is, I want to define it in how I’m talking about it in this blog post because it can be defined in many ways. Self-harming could be discussed as talking negatively to yourself or putting yourself in dangerous situations. In this post, I want to define it as physically hurting yourself.

People who have turned to self-harming have been ridiculed for turning to self-harming as a coping mechanism, and yes it IS a coping mechanism. I don’t support self-harm despite myself using that as a coping mechanism. It can be dangerous, but I also find myself unable to stop myself from using it. I can’t talk about how it is for other people, but I can share my own experience with it.

For me, my self-harm has come into the form of cutting or hitting things. Those who seek out self-harm find different things from using that particular coping mechanism. For me, hitting things helped relieve some of the pent up stress, frustration, or anger I hold inside. Hitting things is pretty normal in comparison to other things. That’s why going to the gym helps a lot of people oftentimes. When I begin cutting, then I know things are at my breaking point.

People often see any form of self-harm has an attention-seeking tool for those being “dramatic.” Sure, I suppose there are a few people out there who do that I’m sure. Again, I can’t speak for everyone. However, I’m willing to bet most people who turn to it seek different things from cutting. I have spoken to some people who have used it as a form of punishment to themselves for reasons I cannot personally understand. Others, like me, seek relief. When I have reached my breaking point where nothing else in the world helps me, the pain helps release whatever bad feelings I’m holding in. It is hard to explain if you have never had to deal with it before, but like I said it’s dangerous. Stitches can sometimes be involved, and then you have to explain to nurses why you cut your wrist. You have to persuade them you are not suicidal, usually, and you are not in danger of ending your life, usually. There have been few times where cutting was a form of attempted suicide.

Now, let me touch on suicide. Unless you have experienced intense depression, you may not be able to understand what it’s like to sit there knowing that living is too much to bear. I hope no one reading this ever has to sit through a feeling like that. It’s such a lonely, depressing, terrifying feeling to feel like you would rather be dead than suffer through life more. During my 25 years of life, I’ve battled this feeling for as long as I remember…even as a young child. It’s terrifying hearing those thoughts float through your mind. It’s terrifying knowing you may not be able to keep yourself safe. It’s terrifying knowing you can’t keep certain medication, like Tylenol, in the house because a trained therapist once you told how to commit suicide on it. When my depression gets absolutely horrible, like it did this past Spring, simply being awake terrifies me.

There is a huge stigma around this part of mental health that not many people want to talk about. People rather assume you’re seeking attention, being dramatic, or in need of hospitalization. I would like to say this is usually not the case, but sadly there are some people out there who use this just do seek attention or be dramatic. I hope they never actually experience it. For those who are being genuine in their feelings, the stigma around these dark parts of mental health keep them from seeking help or support. People are less likely to discuss with someone that they cut their wrist a couple times just to feel alive in fear of being carted off to the hospital to be heavily sedated and hidden away. I blame the media for most of these horrible images I’m calling on just to explain people’s fears. The mentally ill are stigmatized through media by being shown as people who should be placed in straight jackets and forgotten. People bottle things up and suffer in silence rather than seek help.

Before getting the courage to open up in therapy about my problems, I did exactly that. I bottled everything up. No one around me knew how much I battled depression and anxiety. It was a couple of years before my family even noticed I was cutting. I feared my mother throwing me in a hospital, or I feared a therapist deciding I was crazy. That’s not the case. In most cases, in my experience, a therapist won’t hospitalize you until you have a plan to commit suicide. In my experience, I was warned against cutting for my own safety, but my therapist didn’t lock me up for doing it.

People are quick to tell people who feel suicidal that they are being selfish or they’re being a coward. Let me paint you a picture…

I experienced one of the worst intense depressions I’ve had in a long time this past Spring. It began at the end of last year when I was experiencing a bad depression. I had just gotten out of an abusive relationship. I was back in college. I had a crazy work schedule just so I could attend classes. I felt stuck in my life. By the middle of the semester, my therapist (who helped me so, so much and saved my life numerous times in so many ways) left the college. I cried for a few weeks, literally grieving her loss. In December, I had car troubles and spent a chunk of that month scrambling to get things straightened out. I attempted suicide the night my car was towed. By the Spring, my depression hit like a snowstorm. I felt like I had no support. My new therapist wasn’t helpful. A woman I had begun dating passed away. I isolated myself from those I sought out support from. It took the delivery of my thin mints for me to even speak to my mentor. I was in a constant state of near-tears. My cutting was borderline dangerous, sometimes overstepping that thin line. I attempted suicide once more. Miraculously, I began seeing my former therapist again. However, everyone around me was worried about my safety. That worry tripled after I was in a car accident on campus. It was a terrifying time during that small chunk of my life, and it still feels like a huge blur thinking back on it.

Imagine being hit with all that, and more that I simply left out. My life has always been one that never worked out. If something good happened, something 10 times worse will happen. I had enough sense in me to create what I introduced before as my happy book. I cut out emails, texts, tweets, and put them in this journal. They were reminders people cared for me. If I died, someone (I like to hope) would truly miss me.

It is not selfish to want the pain to end.

Now saying that, keep something else in mind. You are stronger than you imagine. I promise it might be a bad time in your life, but things get better. Take a deep breath, seek support, and find the strength to keep fighting.

See? Was that so hard to say? Instead, I hear I’m being stupid, I’m only hoping to cause pain to my family, etc. You understand how hearing those kind of negative statements only make things worse, right?

I don’t ever, ever want to say I support suicide as a solution to depression. It’s a permanent solution, sure, but there are so many good things to live for.

Instead of looking at self-harm and suicide as negative things that need to be forcibly removed, these things need to be looked at differently. It is so much better to look at these things in a supportive, caring, helpful mood rather than forcing that person not to self-harm or not to consider suicide. That person needs support, a shoulder to lean on… not more harassment. Depression is hard in and of itself. Depression abuses the person it torments. That person doesn’t need someone else to help torment themselves.

It took me a long time to talk about these things in therapy. I’m still working on reaching out for support when I need it. It’s not something anyone who suffers with mental health issues can easily do when the world shouts us down. The only time I see mental health taken truly seriously is when a beloved celebrity or esteemed member of the community suffers from it or commits suicide. I remember when Robin Williams took his life. Mental health advocacy sprung up everywhere, and that’s fantastic. But why does that have to happen only when someone famous dies?

Sometimes, strength shows through when you reach out to others for help. I was incredibly surprised and grateful by the support I received and still receive. I met new friends in my English classes who were supportive. My professors went out of their way to help me. And my therapist, the good one, let me talk things out. She made sure I was safe, knew how to reach out if I couldn’t keep myself safe, and she helped me work through things. I was lucky enough that Eva LaRue responded to tweets of mine sharing my drawings, and she once provided me with positive advice to keep fighting. That is what people need instead of the ridicule.

In the Spring, hospitalization became an option I had to consider if things didn’t get better. Sometimes that is what you need, and sometimes that can be helpful. I just want to say this to those suffering… do what you need to do to make yourself safe if you’re in that position. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those who are there, or reach out to the suicide hotlines that are available online and over the phone. Seek therapy if you feel that will be helpful. Find healthy coping mechanisms that help you cope. Art, photography, and blogging have become my go-to coping mechanisms.

Those who are simply supporting loved ones who suffer, reconsider how you talk to them. Be a positive shoulder for them to lean on. Don’t give in to the stigma. It’s so important, and it’s a step in the right direction of beating the stigma.

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