This piece originally appeared on Athletes in Action. Published with permission.
As I stated in part one of this series on mental health, stigma is the glass ceiling that keeps people from getting the help, understanding and support they need. Stigma is often the source of conflict and hurt within relationships, especially between those with mental illness and their loved ones. Stigma and lack of understanding are the two most common frustrations I hear from people living with mental illness — a frustration I also share.
One out of five adults in the United States currently live with a mental illness, yet disorders such as “depression” and “PTSD” are not thought of in the same way as cancer or diabetes. If an athlete has constant pain in their foot, or pulls a muscle during competition, most likely they will seek treatment from athletic trainers or team doctors. Why is it then, that if an athlete has panic attacks, suicidal thoughts or is struggling with eating they are less likely to get help? What about mental illness makes people feel shame and want to hide — or at the opposite extreme — judge and criticize others?
I believe there are many myths that contribute to this stigma against mental illness. For example, some may think having depression means a person is sad all the time, and while feeling sad or down is certainly a symptom of depression, this disorder also affects your energy level, your ability to think, focus, and engage with others. In more severe cases, it is difficult to even do daily activities such as shower, eat or get dressed.
Another common myth is the belief that depression is something one can just “snap out of” — which is completely false. A person cannot will themselves out of depression or anxiety anymore than a person can will themselves out of a cold. People fail to understand that mental illness is just as much biological as it is emotional.
Empirical studies have proven that many people living with a mental illness have chemical imbalances in the brain. For example, a common link to depression is having low serotonin (a hormone that contributes to positive mood and energy) levels in the brain. This kind of information is abundant and easily accessible, particularly via the internet. If people take the time to learn important information about mental health, many of these common myths would be dispelled.
Nothing makes a person feel more isolated than being surrounded by people who are unable to empathize with their struggle. It can be even more difficult trying to help others understand thoughts and feelings you yourself may not even understand.
How do you explain the unexplainable, even to the people who love and care about you? Of course, there are also the thoughts or feelings you have that you are ashamed of and confident will lead to judgment and rejection from others.
I can tell you from experience that in addition to the mental illness itself, these barriers can make any person overwhelmed. Fear of vulnerability can lead to misunderstanding, causing a person to be even less willing to open up, which only exasperates the mental illness they are trying to hide. This is the downward spiral that has stolen life, joy and vitality from so many people.
So as an athlete, what can you do if you receive little to no understanding or empathy from your coach or teammates? What do you do after graduation if you face the harsh reality of stigma in the workplace? While no easy answer exists in response to these questions, here are some steps we can take to be more equipped to handle these difficult and often painful conflicts.
Educate others who are ignorant about mental illness
Often times people’s poor response to mental struggles are not a function of not caring; rather, people are usually simply uneducated. A person cannot understand what they do not know. Of course, you will need to make sure you understand your mental illness in order to explain it to others, so make sure you begin with educating yourself first by doing research online or talking to a mental health professional. When talking with others, try to be clear and concise with what you are saying, and leave room for questions. And show them grace as they try to understand what you tell them.
Seek support from others
In Genesis 2:18, God tells us it is not good for us to be alone. It is not his desire for us to be isolated from other people. If you are seeking empathy and understanding from others, you will most likely receive it from people who are struggling in the same way you are. Find environments where you are surrounded by people who truly understand the difficulty of living with mental illness, folks who will not judge or criticize you no matter what you share. I believe the best place to find this is in group therapy or support groups for people living with mental illness. I have found it so much easier to be vulnerable in group settings like these, and have even gotten good feedback for how to handle challenging situations that have come up.
Keep moving forward
There is a term in psychology called “radical acceptance,” which means to accept what we cannot change or control. The reality is, there might be people you encounter who will never understand mental illness or will always have a negative bias towards it, which is painful and hard to accept.
However, you cannot control what others think, and that is something you will need to accept even though you do not like it. In order to fight stigma and bring real change, we have to be ready to face criticism and judgment and move forward in spite of it. Of course, if on your team or at your job you feel you are being discriminated against because you have a mental illness, you do not have to accept that. Do not be afraid to fight for your rights and enlist help from someone who will be an advocate for you (i.e. a counselor, academic advisor, the Human Resources department at work, etc.).
Even though we cannot control how others think, there is a difference between control and influence. By educating others, sharing our experiences and advocating for our rights, we can influence how people think about mental health, which will lead to change. Creating change is like swimming upstream — it is difficult and exhausting. It is never easy to be vulnerable with others, but personal testimony is often what keeps their attention and leaves them wanting to learn more.
The Lord knows how hard it is to face opposition from others. Jesus was crucified because his teachings were so radical and controversial. He came to change the world and bring us back to himself, and he accomplished that when he rose from the grave. If you believe this and surrender your life (including your battle with mental illness and stigma), you have a new identity as a child of God which can bring so much joy! This joy gives us strength (Isaiah 40:31) even when facing judgment from others.
Also know that there is hope. Change is happening as more people are becoming more aware of mental health and more willing to join the fight against stigma. We have made progress, but still have a long way to go. Even though stigma hurts, it will not destroy you. God has a purpose and plan for your life, and you will always be covered, protected and loved by Him. Remember His promises, and you will experience the hope and peace found only in Him.
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
If you or someone you know is struggling, particularly with thoughts of suicide, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
Part II If You’re Struggling Now