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The impact of mental health misconceptions

For Mental Health Awareness Week, one of our Young Champions writes on the stereotypes and misconceptions about mental health issues – and how this can further impact people’s mental health.

With mental health having crept more and more into the limelight over the last few decades, and particularly during the pandemic, it’s no wonder that there are many ideas around what different mental health problems ‘look like’.

These ideas of mental health, particularly surrounding certain diagnoses, can sometimes help. They give us an idea of what to look out for, especially when we are not diagnostic professionals. For example, you could notice someone is quieter and sleeping all the time, and suspect they are experiencing depression. However, these ‘labels’ can also be harmful, and can lead to mistreatment from the general public and professionals alike.

I live with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, anorexia, and emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD). Every day, these illnesses wind themselves together in different ways, combining and presenting themselves in a complex manner. There are a lot of ideas around all of these difficulties and, most of the time, the ideas themselves are a huge problem for me to face.

Take OCD. We often assume that this would always present as tidiness. This misconception is mostly amongst the general public, and I’ve encountered no professionals who wholly believe this. This judgement of OCD presentation is invalidating. It makes me feel as though my rituals aren’t due to OCD – which, for me, is really dangerous. If they aren’t due to a disorder, then to me they must be real, and if they are real, then they must also be true. This leads to me being more convicted in my compulsions, resulting in a very physical reaction to the idea that OCD is about nothing but tidiness.

As for depression, I have met both non-professionals and qualified mental health workers who uphold some really odd ideas. One such idea is that depressed people aren’t ever happy. When I was younger, even the crisis team seemed to believe this, as they delayed a critical hospital admission because they saw me laughing on a daily visit. This made them believe that I wasn’t suffering from depression, and therefore couldn’t be in crisis.

Then comes anorexia. As someone with this diagnosis, who is also overweight, the idea that anorexics are always thin has caused me to have multiple relapses. This idea comes from all types of people, including most of the mental health professionals who I have met. It has led to me being denied appropriate treatment, such as access to specialist eating disorder services.

The impact of these misconceptions about mental health problems is that it makes me second guess myself constantly. From friends confiding details about themselves which can be triggering to me (e.g. assuming I am well because I am not thin), to professionals telling me to lose weight before asking how they can help. I often wonder if I’m some sort of fraud. I spend a lot of time and energy justifying my weight, especially in relation to my eating disorder. I will not be doing that in this blog, but that is a difficult thing to resist.

My final experience is of, from what I can see, one of the most stigmatised mental illnesses of all – EUPD/BPD. My personality disorder leads mostly to being called manipulative by those I know well, and by mental health professionals. I am not manipulative. I spend every minute second guessing my words and actions, because it is so drilled into me that I must be terrible and emotionally abusive. In fact, my experience has been that I often find myself victim to manipulation, and often from mental health professionals.

I am treated as a difficult case, or demanding. I have experienced the emotional manipulation of medical ‘gaslighting’, where a medical professional makes me question the reality of my own lived experience, making me feel like I’m losing my mind. The impact of this is that it leads to my decision not to vocalise my concerns any further. I convince myself that I am practising acceptance but, in reality, I’m being silenced.

I write this blog not for personal gain, but in the hope that I will reach two people. One is the person who has had experiences similar to mine, and who now feels less alone. The second person may be someone who knows a young person who is struggling, and who will perhaps realise from this blog that they should work on some of the ideas that they think are true. Often, this person will typecast, and think that all people with one diagnosis are the same or similar to each other.

If that person is reading this, I do not blame you. The language of mental health is relatively new and ever-growing. We all make mistakes and have misconceptions. I would urge you, as a next step, to think about what comes to mind when you think of mental health. Perhaps there’s a specific diagnosis, or perhaps it’s generic. It’s time to challenge that idea because no two people with mental health struggles are the same. Just like no two people are the same in general, no presentation will be identical. We are still individuals.

Even the most harmful of ideas may apply occasionally. The harm lies less in the existence of the idea, but more in the belief and implementation of it. That directly affects all those people to whom it’s wrongly applied.

And again, if you are reading this and thinking ‘that’s what’s happened to me!’, I want you to know – you are not what they say you are. You are, put simply, you. You, but with a mental health problem, is still you. And who you are, is enough.

If you are in need of help or support please visit our urgent help page which lists organisations that are available, including ones available 24/7.