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Deutsche Version

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Mentally Ill – Why don’t you come out to people?

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If you have a mental illness, most of the times that’s something other people can’t really see just from looking at you. So, others usually don’t really know about it rightaway. However, sometimes you spend a lot of time with them, especially if you work with them or you are closer friends. So, with time, every now and then, symptoms of your chronic illness or disability will become apparent, which you might have to find a way to explain. So then, you face the decision to tell them or not. For example, when you have to stay at home more often because of your illness or you have many therapy appointments. Or when some things just don’t work for you like they work for others. Like, maybe you can’t watch certain movies because they might trigger a flashback to a traumatic experience. How do you tell your friends? Or at work, the schedules, how often you can take a break, or certain tasks that you maybe manage differently than others would do it. Maybe it’s also the space where you’re supposed to work, that just doesn’t work out for you so well, because maybe you are afraid of closed spaces, or it’s really important for you to sit near a window so you get enough light and air. How can you tell your colleagues and supervisors all these things?

If you can’t or don’t want to tell people about your illness or disability, that might lead to you just not meeting up with friends very often anymore and rather secluding yourself. And while that might be possible in your private life, it often gets a little more complicated in your job. You will probably have to think of some little white lies every now and then. Like, making up a cold when you call in sick. Or saying you have asthma, and need to sit near the window to get enough oxygen. Or going to the bathroom really often, just to be able to secretly have a tiny little break for a few minutes. But it never feels good, having to hide a part of yourself all the time and to keep lying to people. Or to keep feeling like the others think you‘re weird because they can’t understand your behavior. In fact, you might prefer to just explain everything to them. So why not tell the truth? You could say which illness you have and what you need in order to do good work with your illness or disability, or which things you can do with your friends without any problems and which are a little more difficult, or why you have to cancel on them at short notice sometimes. If you’re lucky, your friends or your work team are open and understanding, and together you can think of ways to spend time/work with each other best.

Unfortunately, that very often is not the case. If you tell people about your mental illness, they mostly have very diverse reactions to such a coming out. Some seem very understanding first, but later you might notice that they do treat you differently now. Some react very negatively rightaway. Of course, many ill/disabled people know this, so they are afraid to talk about it and prefer to keep it to themselves.

Here are some reactions many people have when someone comes out to them as mentally ill:

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They don’t believe you.

There are many people who can’t really understand something like, for example, depression. They see it as weakness, and say things like, “Everybody gets sad sometimes” or “We all have bad days” and ask you to just pull yourself together a little. While they are able to understand and acknowledge physical illnesses, mental illnesses don’t really exist for them. That illnesses like depression are, in a way, physical, too, is something many people don’t know. When you have depression, the metabolism of neurotransmitters in your brain is out of balance and causes lethargy and desperation. You can’t just overcome that by “pulling yourself together“.

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They think you’re lazy.

The ones who don‘t really believe you also often like to say that you’re just lazy, and you’re just making excuses.

So again, let’s talk about the brain. In fact, the things that happen in your brain when you have emotional pain are pretty similar to what happens when you have physical pain. So you might not be able to locate the pain in your body in the same way you would if you broke your foot. Still, emotional pain is real and it has physical effects. It can be so intense that you might even hardly be able to move anymore. In other words: If somebody stays in bed the whole day and binge-watches Netflix for hours, it might be because they can’t get up and because Netflix distracts them from their pain and that’s the only way they even make it through the day. What can look like laziness from the outside, might be pure survival.

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They think you’re difficult.

This, too, is often one of the reactions from people who don’t really believe you. They think you just always want a special treatment and you’re just a particularly difficult person. Things don’t perfectly work for you the same way they work for others, therefore you sometimes need different conditions to be able to, for example, do your job well. As a person with a chronic illness or disability you are absolutely entitled to that. However, many people see it as too big of an effort they are not willing to take on, even when it’s just about small adjustments, which, if you look a little closer, aren’t even that complicated. And even if they are – in the name of equal opportunity, they are simply necessary.

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They don’t take you seriously anymore.

Another reaction that people often get when they come out as mentally ill is not being taken seriously anymore. People assume that you can’t think clearly and that you are completely incompetent. At work, that can lead to quite heavy discrimination. The things you say, aren’t really valid anymore, and the work you do will be evaluated more critically. Sometimes they are not actually aware of it, and it is more of a feeling subliminally influencing the way they treat you. Like, explaining things to you more often, even though you’ve already said you got it. Or extra checking your work to see if everything is correct. Or just rather take over things themselves and assign only little tasks to you which you are overqualified for. Sometimes it even comes to the point when supervisors and colleagues just don’t have any confidence in you anymore and eventually you lose your job. Often, other reasons for the termination are made up, or you decide to leave voluntarily, because you just experience too much discrimination.

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They think you’re a bad friend.

Maybe it’s because you sometimes have to cancel at short notice, because you’re not well and they see you as unreliable. Or because you are a little absent in certain situations, and they get the feeling you don’t listen to them. Or because you’re not good at being spontaneous because of anxiety. However, it often doesn’t even get to the point where they get to notice these things, because they already distance themselves, as soon as they know about or suspect your illness or disability. They either think that they might be pulled into it and be burdened with your problems, or they have stereotypes in their minds about mentally ill people who aren’t capable of friendships or relationships and they think that a friendship with you would just mean stress and drama. That this isn’t necessarily the case with you, like with most other people with mental illnesses, often doesn’t seem to matter much.

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They think you are dangerous.

Some people also react by keeping distance from you, and maybe even get scared of you, because they think you’re dangerous. Many people believe that mentally ill people are more likely to be criminal and violent than healthy people.

The media contributes to the prejudice and stigma: There are only little reports emphasizing the mental illness of a victim of violence. More frequently, we hear about violent criminals, who are schizophrenic, or assassins, who coincidentally also had depressions. Often, a direct connection is drawn between the illness and the crime, even though that is only correct in very few cases.

Diverse movies and series also show us “insane mass murderers” or similar things. A more realistic representation of mentally ill people could reduce the stigma and the prejudices.

In fact, this is how it actually is:

  1. People with mental illnesses or disabilities are a lot more often the victims of violence and abuse than they are perpetrators.
  2. People with mental illnesses or disabilities are a lot more often victims of violence and abuse than people without an illness or disability.
  3. People with mental illnesses or disabilities are not generally more violent than people without illnesses/disabilities.

And maybe, you are one of these people. You are not violent, but maybe you have experienced violence as a reaction to a coming out as mentally ill. Maybe you have lost friendships because of it. Maybe you are not very good at hiding it in your behavior and you feel like people just find you weird and turn away from you. Maybe you just know the prejudices and feel the stigma very intensely. But maybe what you also feel is how heavy the isolation and the hiding weigh on you, making your illness even worse, and you have the strong need to just be able to be open and live in freedom.

So what do you do? Will you come out?

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[ written by Anna (M) ]