Shhh…Speak Up! On Silencing the Reality of Mental Illness

Suppose I were to tell you that I had a bad heart or a broken leg. My guess is you would probably respond with a sympathetic ear and an offer to help.

But suppose I told you I was hearing voices, had debilitating panic attacks, or repeated suicidal thoughts. I would probably watch as you avoided my gaze and shifted uncomfortably in your seat. Or, I’d hear you say something like, “Don’t be silly. Stop talking about those things.” “Just think positively.” Or even, “Snap out of it.”

The truth is, there’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, even amongst those who are otherwise well informed and intelligent. An even greater truth is that even those who are otherwise well informed and intelligent can be struck by a debilitating mental illness. Mental illness does not discriminate. It can strike anyone, anywhere. Even those who feel impervious to its reality. I think I was one of those people.

I always thought I was a strong and ‘in control’ person. I avoided the so-called ‘messy emotions’ and put forth an image of someone who was consistently put together. I would have responded like the hypothetical person above if someone had told me about their mental illness. I never believed it could happen to me. But it did.

I had just come back to Canada after a year overseas, and I wasn’t prepared for the reality of the transition. I struggled immensely, and I never really came out of it. After a few months, I went to university and the darkness followed. There were good times, but inevitably, I would end up feeling swallowed by a deep sadness. I remember a friend saying to me on different occasions, “I think you have depre—”. But each time she couldn’t finish, because I cut her off with an emphatic “No! That couldn’t happen to me!”

Months and months went by, but nothing changed. I was getting more and more desperate as hope slipped through my fingers. As much as I hated to admit it, I began to consider the thought that she may be right. Finally, with much agonizing, I went to the doctor. My worst fears were confirmed. I had depression.

For some time I couldn’t even say the word, because the reality was too painful to bear. Besides, I believed I could figure out a way to ‘kick it’ on my own. If I tried hard enough, prayed long enough, trusted God enough, then somehow it would disappear like a bad dream.

It was an extremely lonely and isolating place to be. I was terrified of others, especially those in my church, finding out about my ‘condition.’ I thought that if they knew, they would see me as weak and reject me. It’s not that anyone said these things outright, but mental illness was never a topic of discussion, so by virtue of omission, it became a breeding ground for assumption and fear. So, while I wasted away inside, I put on a good face and pretended I was fine.

But nothing seemed to help. I fell further into what I was starting to think was hell on earth, and I lost hope that my life could change. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I decided to try medication. It sounds like an easy decision, but to me it confirmed the fact that I was weak and a failure. My fear increased because of what might happen when I would have to disclose these things on applications or such things in the future.

Medication was a long road full of changing doses and types to try to figure out what worked for me. I was very blessed to have doctors that cared, supportive family and friends, and a good counsellor. After four long years of being on and off different medications, I was able to come off slowly with the advice of my doctor. Words can’t properly express the joy I experience when I say that, by God’s grace, I have been off medication for just over one year, and depression free ever since. I never believed that this could happen, but it has, and I am so grateful.

Now, having lived through mental illness myself, I’m no longer the seat-shifting, gaze-avoiding, stigma-enforcer. I know what it can be like, and that’s why I’m speaking up. When we speak about it, we command the fog of misunderstanding, stigma, assumptions, and fear to flee. We clear the air and make space for truth. We’ve learned to accept and help those with bad hearts and broken legs, so why not those with depression, schizophrenia, or anxiety?

Let’s ‘shhhh’ those people who tell us to be silent, and speak up about mental illness.

If you’re reading this and you are suffering from some sort of mental illness, be it depression or something else, please know that you’re not alone, you’re not weak, and you’re not a failure. Actually, to make it to where you are now means you’re quite strong. But please don’t make the mistake I did and keep silent, trying to fix things on your own. Find somebody you trust and get the help you need.

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9 comments

  1. Yes, Tami This was a long hard road and I am so thankful to God everyday that He together with all the rest of the support group you had were able to get through this and be more educated about this so that we in turn can help others who might be dealing with this mental illness. God is good and He uses all kinds of different means and ways to help those He loves and cares deeply about. By the way He cares for everyone. I have learned so much through the experience we walked together with you in and through.

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  2. Thank you so much for posting this. I’ve been feeling really isolated lately because I have nobody to talk to about my mental illnesses. I tried to tell my parents that I had an anxiety problem when I was younger and they told me that it was basically my own fault. Since then I have seen a psychologist and been diagnosed with 4 mental illnesses with symptoms of 2 others (but not enough criteria met for a full diagnosis). I have a deep-set desire to tell my family and get everything out in the open so that I can share my experiences with others but I feel like I can’t tell them because they will freak out. There is no way my parents would ever understand why I self-harm or how I could have an eating disorder. I so badly want them to know so that I don’t have to feel like I’m hiding who I really am, but at the same time I don’t want my parents to know because of how they will react.
    Your post really helped me because it gave me hope that I will one day be able to be more open about my illnesses and experiences. My hope is that one day I will be a mental health advocate.

    Thanks again for sharing,
    xo
    Ayla

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  3. Thanks Tami for sharing about your struggles with a horrible illness. You are right, depression is no respecter
    of persons…according to the stats 1 out of 5 people will be affected by mental illness at some point in their life. I certainly agree with what you stated in the beginning of your article…..in 1996, I shattered both bones in my left leg, which resulted in surgery, bone grafting, hardware, wheel chair, walker, etc. and I wholeheartedly agree that it was much easier to deal with then mental illness. When one is mentally healthy, it is much easier to deal with hard issues. BUT, when one does not have mental wellness, even the little things seem insurmountable. As you may or may not know (because it was a ‘Shhh’/taboo subject in our family), our Hiebert family has a history of mental illness…don’t know how far back but for sure my and your mother’s grandpa…..our Uncle Abe….and later some of the cousins and even some of the next generation. Although mental illness isn’t heredity as such….some family gene pool is more predisposed to mental illness. Unfortunately, I am one of those who is also afflicted with mental illness (depression, anxiety, bi-polar like symptoms of mood swings from highs to lows). Other families may carry genes (and I don’t mean Levis..) more predisposed to Diabetes, Heart Disease, etc. But God is our creator and He does not create ‘Junk’. It is only when we openly share how God helps us in our struggles, that God’s purpose for our lives can be fulfilled. For example….in 2 Corinth. 12: 7-9, Paul, a man who became one of God’s most prominent disciples, says….’To Keep Me From Becoming Conceited Because Of These Surpassingly Great Revelations, There Was Given Me A Thorn In My Flesh, A Messenger Of Satan, To Torment Me (Makes Sense Why It Feels Like Hell On Earth). Three Times I Pleaded With The Lord To Take It Away From Me. But He Said, “My Grace Is Sufficient For You, For My Power Is Made Perfect In Weakness.” Therefore, I Will Boast All The More Gladly About My Weaknesses, So That Christ’s Power May Rest On Me.’
    It is by sharing our story that we can be used by God to minister to others struggling with mental illness. Thanks for speaking out…..let’s do our part to remove the stigma of mental illness. It would have been easier for me to come to grips with it, had it been talked about in my family rather than Shhh’ing about it. But I guess that was their easy of coping with the pain resulting from the family history because of the stigma and condemnation they experienced, in their grief, instead of compassion and sympathy. Thankfully, more headways has been made in talking openly about mental illness and let’s continue to share our story in hopes of helping others.

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  4. Thank You for your honesty & open heart about your own struggle with depression! Mental illness runs on my Dad’s side of the family & I have family members who have struggled with it as well as a best friend who committed suicide. We really need not be afraid to talk about mental illness. Thank You for opening that door!

    Love & Hugs!
    Auntie Myrna

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  5. Tami, I’m glad you spoke up. There are so many people that are afraid to say anything for the exact reasons that you state. I have had depression as well. I was not severely depressed, but my Dr. was the one that told me I was. I said, “I don’t feel depressed” and he replied that people don’t always know they are, they can be happy go lucky people but he was a Dr., and still is, that takes the time to listen to his patients. I’m truly grateful for him.

    I’m thankful that you are healed and are able to share with others. God bless you on your journey.

    Love Aunty Mary 🙂

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