It’s safe to say I talk about mental illness more than the average person (okay, much more than the average person), which means I can get so focused on specifics and details that I miss things that are outside my scope. Over the years, mental illness has become more and more glamorized and honestly, I missed parts of it. I mostly ignored this content because I thought I knew what the causes were, but it’s much more complicated than I’d anticipated. So today I’d like to address one aspect of why it’s dangerous to glamorize mental illness – and how easily it can be perpetrated.
Early on in my mental health journey, I was constantly doing research on Google. I wanted to learn about what I was feeling – symptoms, causes, treatment, etc. I was reading other people’s experiences and seeing myself in their stories about feeling sad and overwhelmed. But I was also putting in searches like ‘how to make my depression go away’ and ‘what’s good about depression’ and that’s where I saw my first obstacle in the way of mental wellness.
I found so much content that said that depression is more common in creatives, that it creates pain that we can use as fuel for our work, and it impacted me in that early state. I saw my depression as poetic, as necessary for my struggle. The more I lived with depression, the more I would be able to use this pain and do something noteworthy. But let me be clear – I WAS SO DAMN WRONG. The “tortured genius” trope in media is toxic for people with mental health conditions, and has persisted for years. Mental illness is often used as a footnote in someone’s success story, e.g. “they overcame their struggle with X to become the Next Big Thing.” We treat mental illness as something to overcome, or a game to win. That creates an attitude that makes people feel like they need to ‘beat’ mental illness, but never to manage it.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms and a reactionary approach to mental health are two other reasons for this continued glamorization. We all have some coping mechanisms that aren’t the healthiest (I include myself in that), but avoidance to connect those coping mechanisms with a possible struggle means that people are often struggling and will try to place the blame on anything but mental illness. Our reactionary nature also means that we’re discussing mental illness after the fact, instead of having a more honest discussion about how we got there in the first place.
Despite the incredible conversations I have with folks and an improved portrayal of mental illness in the media, I know millions of people in America see mental illness as a weakness. The only upside of this weakness, it seems, is that it can be the backstory for our success. But mental illness isn’t only reserved for the most successful and respected – remember, it doesn’t discriminate! That’s why I don’t say that I “struggle with depression.” I am not a tortured genius. I am not here to overcome depression or conquer anxiety (though maybe one day it won’t be so debilitating!). I live with mental illness, and I’m just doing the best I can. And you know what? That’s more than enough.