Experiencing any mental illness can be challenging, frustrating, and sometimes debilitating. It is something someone deals with, but it isn’t who someone is. Mental illness is a challenge, not an identity.
You developed schizophrenia, and I know from talking to you that it’s scary and frustrating and it has brought a lot of changes to your life. But it’s not who you are, Penelope. It is merely something you have to deal with. Your mind plays some pretty nasty tricks on you sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that you are unlovable. — Oliver to Penelope in Leave of Absence
That mental illness, any specific mental illness, isn’t an identity isn’t always easy to believe. Often, people associate their mental health challenges with who they are as a human being. There are multiple reasons for this.
- Mental illnesses impact emotions, and often life feels out of control and hard to handle. It’s natural to believe that these intense, sometimes erratic feelings are a sign that we’re flawed somehow, unable to handle ourselves and the world around us.
- Mental illnesses impacts thoughts. Mental illness can impact the way people think about themselves and the world. Everyone has what are called faulty thoughts or automatic negative thoughts (like imposing “shoulds” upon yourself or catastrophizing/blowing something out of proportion and stressing out), but mental illnesses have a way of intensifying these thoughts.
- Mental illnesses impact behaviors. Emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are intricately connected, and they affect each other. Faulty thoughts and intense emotions can affect actions people do or don’t take. Anxiety disorders, for example, can be very life-limiting when they prevent people from going out or doing certain things because of fear and worry.
- Society doesn’t fully understand mental illness. A word commonly used for this misunderstanding is stigma. There’s a lot of misperceptions about what mental illness really is, and this can negatively impact how someone living with mental illness is treated. Sometimes, outsiders see the mental illness before seeing the real person experiencing it.
Together, these can cause someone believe that mental illness is who they are.
The truth is that mental illness (again, any particular mental illness) has affected the brain, not the essence of who we are. The truth is that there are numerous treatments available to reduce the impact mental illnesses have on emotions, actions, and thoughts. The truth is that understanding can be taught. By listening to people’s shared stories, by reading memoirs and non-fiction books and articles about mental illness, by reading novels that show what these challenges are like for people, society as a whole is developing deeper understanding of what mental illness really is and what people living with mental health challenges experience.
The truth is that mental illness isn’t who you are. Therefore, you can rise above the illness to thrive.
Journalism students from the University of Oregon interviewed me for a production for Allen Hall Studios. I share a bit about my own experience with mental illness — and transcending it.
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