The Facebook post was so long it had a “Read more” hyperlink. It read like the script for a dramatic film, except all of the characters were familiar to me already. The protagonist had (past tense) depression and kept it under wraps for months. After reaching out for help they are proud to tell me—and hundreds of others on Facebook who were moved by their bravery—that they are proud to be speaking from the other side of that struggle. I have read half a dozen of these posts by now and each one has the same tone of redemption and finality. But the redemptive Facebook post poses a problem.
Depression and other mental health issues are, unfortunately, not as easy to conquer as an illness with an antidote. The flu can be prevented with a simple shot. A virus can be kicked out of the system with an antibiotic. But mental illness does not have such a simple cure. It does not always have a finite ending or a certain demise. There is no guarantee that it won’t sneak back into your life one day and tap you on the shoulder like an unwelcome friend from the past.
Chances are most individuals who live with mental health issues know this.They are aware that they may need to attend therapy or take medication even after feeling as though the problem is behind them. Or perhaps that awareness sits in the back of their mind, and they want to believe that there really is a finite end. If there is, those people are lucky. In the case of bipolar disorder, the chance of relapse one year after a manic episode is 50 percent, and rises to 70 percent after five years, according to the World Federation for Mental Health. Studies by the National Institute for Mental Health have also found that depression in young adults “persists, recurs, and continues into adulthood, especially if left untreated.”
Either way, the stigma associated with these problems still holds strong, shaming millions of people into silence or the diluting of their truth. According to the National Alliance On Mental Illness, 20 percent of Americans ages 13-18 have a mental illness. Today, suicide is the second highest cause of death for those ages 10-24. No more evidence is needed to prove that there is still a long way to go. Although many schools provide resources such as counseling or referrals for students in this age range, these tools live inside a culture of misunderstanding and judgement. Peers may not respect the depth and complexity of a classmate’s mental illness. This makes it difficult for people to come forward and use the tools being provided—in a study by NAMI, only half the respondents ever divulged their mental illness to another person.
And let’s face it—it’s easier to discuss pain with other people if we’re speaking about it in the past tense. If someone is afraid that another person will be overwhelmed or concerned by their mental illness, it is tempting to downplay the issue by phrasing it as a problem that has been solved already, rather than a problem that may need to be addressed again. It’s a problem that may require comfort, attendance, and management for years. In a way, it is understandable to feel hesitant about asking someone to stand by you through that kind of uncertainty.
But it is proven that there is a positive ripple effect that occurs when someone steps forward and shares their story. There is no doubt that it takes immense courage to do that. Now we need to work on creating a more educated and informed environment for the people who step forward in the present, so they can feel comfortable telling their story in full. This means feeling secure in reaching out to others during times of stability as well as in times of depression. It’s incredible that people may feel they have completely eradicated this problem from their life—that would be wonderful. But the truth is that the symptoms of a mental illness may rise and subside as frequently as the tide throughout one’s life. And that’s okay.
Allies of mental health reform need to remember that relapse is normal and should reaffirm that notion for anyone they support. It’s damaging to use language that callously brushes off the issue, even if good intentions are behind the words. Telling someone that they can “beat the demon” or “win the battle” can set up expectations for a person with mental illness who might not feel comfortable confiding in the future that the battle is indeed still going on.
This does not invalidate the words of those who claim to have healed completely, it is for those who built the strength to tell their story with uncertainty of the ending.