Trigger warning: this article contains language related to self-harm, eating disorders and suicide that may be triggering to some individuals.
Emaciated, white female, with blonde hair stood in front of the mirror seeing herself as much bigger than she is. Politely refusing all food offered to her. This is the face of eating disorders.
‘Normal’ looking woman lying in bed, crying her eyes out, self-harming and sat in front of a tub of medications contemplating suicide. This is the face of depression.
A frail woman that’s nervous about everything. This is the face of anxiety.
An average-looking woman that talks to all the different voices in her head and has 7 different personalities. This is the face of schizophrenia.
A female that is constantly tidying her flat and washing her hands repeatedly. This is the face of OCD.
Other than the fact that all these statements need unpacking, I firstly want to address one thing. What do all these assumptions about mental illness have in common? Everyone pictures women.
This is assumption is a) complete rubbish, because mental illness doesn’t discriminate, any gender (including non-binary) can develop mental illness; it doesn’t discriminate based on size, race, skin colour, religion, ability, sexuality. NOTHING. And b) this assumption is incredibly damaging. It feeds into the narrative that men don’t experience mental health illnesses, making it harder for them to reach out when they need to. Men can have mental illnesses. This narrative is what is causing suicide rates to be highest in males because they feel unable to talk about their feelings – because ‘men don’t cry’. *audible eye roll*
So that’s the first issue I have with this image of mental illness that is painted for us. My second big, and I mean HUGE gripe with these assumptions is that: MENTAL ILLNESS DOESN’T HAVE A LOOK!
I am sick and tired of the bombardment we get about how you need to look a certain way in order to be sick. ‘Oh you don’t look thin enough to have an eating disorder’, ‘you don’t look depressed’, ‘I get anxious before exams too’, ‘omg I have OCD too because my desk has to be organised’, ‘my mood swings are so bad, I’m so bipolar’. Oh, I’m sorry Trudy, I didn’t know that you could see into my head! Wow!
*breatheeee Zoe, breathe*
From experience, I can only unpack some of these statements, because I relate to a few of these. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about the prejudice individuals with bipolar, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, etc experience, but a two of my favourite accounts on Instagram that talk about at least a couple of those are @selfloveliv and @selfloveclubb.
In the depths of my eating disorder, I got thin, but I was never emaciated. Not long ago, I got a comment on a photo on Instagram saying that I never had an eating disorder because I wasn’t thin enough. Until then, I forgot that many people still seem to think that eating disorders have a look because I’m so immersed in the eating disorder recovery and bopo community. The reality is that this narrative still exists.
Only last year, I was very thin, rarely ate, purged everything I ate, exercised religiously, self-harmed regularly, attempted suicide multiple times and hardly left my bed. This sounds about right, yes? Unfortunately, this is the image that we are sold when it comes to mental illness.
Fast forward a year, and I’m significantly heavier than I was, but I still struggle with my intake and weight, I still slip up with purging. I am still a recovering anorexic (binge/purge subtype). However, when you look at me now, this thought wouldn’t even cross your mind. This goes back to the fact that eating disorders do not have a ‘look’; they don’t have a weight limit. Changes in weight, if any, are simply a symptom of an eating disorder. When is it going to become clear that eating disorders are a mental illness?! I don’t ‘look’ like I have an eating disorder anymore, and that’s something I struggled with for a long time, because I felt like my struggles were invalidated and that I couldn’t access help.
This notion that eating disorders have a ‘look’ is literally killing people because people aren’t seeking help as they don’t fit this image of what having an eating disorder looks like.
Moving on to self-harm. I used to always have a set of blades near me; I would always have a fresh set of cuts somewhere on my body whilst another set were healing. My first port of call when things went wrong was to self-harm, by whatever means I could. People, including doctors, would take me seriously then – because all my internal pain was visible. Now, I haven’t self-harmed in over a year, but when I get particularly overwhelmed and anxious, one of the first thoughts that drift into my mind about how to make myself feel better is to hurt myself. I still have the same thoughts and motives to self-harm, but because there are no visible fresh cuts, I am not taken seriously. Having wounds, should not determine whether or not you get help. Self-harm is usually an underlying coping mechanism for another issue – again, highlighting how the actual problem isn’t being taken seriously, as the image of someone with these difficulties is instantaneously one of someone with cuts all up their arms.
I didn’t leave my bed for days at a time, therefore I fit the image of what a depressed person looks like. Now? I can leave my bed, mainly because of the anxiety that arises if I don’t leave my bed now. I’m a high-functioning depressive now, but my mood is something I struggle with massively. However, I manage to get to my lectures, I (somehow) get my work done on time, I take my anti-depressants – therefore I’m no longer deemed depressed by society.
I used to have panic attacks in the middle of the street, hence fitting this idea of what someone with anxiety struggles looks like. I still have moments like this, but not as often. Sometimes, my anxiety will be a build-up in the middle of a lecture where my chest starts to get tight and the panic levels rise. To the outside world though, I look fine. To the outside world, I don’t have anxiety.
The last area I wanted to unpack was suicide. I was taken to hospital in an ambulance following an overdose, therefore my suicidal tendencies were validated. But why the fuck are we only viewing those who are actively suicidal as mentally ill? Why does it take for a struggling individual to actually attempt suicide in order to be taken seriously? I still have thoughts that death is the only way out, but as I’m not actually taking the overdose anymore, therefore I’m not deemed as someone who needs help. How fucked up is it, that when a life is quite literally on the line, that that is when their mental illness is valid? Help people before they get to that stage of desperation. Help people before their pain becomes so unbearable that living just doesn’t feel like an option. (In both photos, I’m suicidical, but you wouldn’t think it at first glance, would you?)
All these assumptions are what is stopping people from accessing the help they deserve. This notion that mental illnesses have a ‘look’ is detrimental to that individual’s well-being; it invalidates their struggles. This image that is portrayed by the media, is killing people – plain and simple. When I fit the profile of someone that looked mentally ill, help was easier to access, but I was also unreceptive to the help. Now, when I want the help desperately, I cannot access it.
There’s this constant talk in the media about how you shouldn’t suffer in silence, yet your problems aren’t deemed valid unless you look the part. This is reinforcing the belief that so many of these individuals have: they aren’t sick enough for help. We need to change the narrative. We need to rid the image of what mental illness looks like. THIS is how lives will be saved.