I remember my first doctor’s appointment to discuss anti-depressants very clearly.
I was so so anxious. Thoughts about medication being the easy way out and worries about the crazy side effects I had seen on Google were running through my mind.
‘Hi I’m here for a doctors appointment with Dr ****’
After finding me on the computer, the receptionist looked up with an air of sympathy and she put her hand up to her mouth as though she harbored some great secret.
‘You realise as it is a mental health appointment, it will go for 30 minutes, rather than the usual 15 minutes,’ she told me in a hushed tone.
Now this is pretty standard information to give to a patient but it was the way she said it that had really surprised me. Her hand to her mouth and quiet voice implied that my mental illness was some big secret – something that should be hidden.
And the shift of her tone from when she spoke to me to when she addressed the next patient made clear to me that she treated mental illness patients differently. Maybe not consciously, but there was a difference.
The appointment itself was what seemed ordinary. The doctor knew the right questions to ask, but was impersonal. There was no compassion, no empathy and in my opinion, no understanding. Now, I am not saying that I go to doctors appointments looking for people to feel sorry for me, in fact, I was offended at the receptionist’s overly sympathetic caution but a little compassion shows understanding. Shows that you can understand what someone is going through and how that affects their life. I appreciate that depression is now regarded as an illness rather than just a mood by most people and that this doctor clearly understood that, but what he failed to understand is how it effects my life. His perspective was pragmatic.
I have no doubt that my experience is reflective of the experiences of so many others. But before getting a mental illness myself, I thought our society was progressive, that while there was stigma, people were more accepting of mental illness. And maybe they are, but there is still such a long way to go.
And this first doctor’s appointment is not the only experience I have had with stigma.
In another appointment, when I disclosed to my doctor that I had been struggling with self-harm in recent weeks, his reaction was, ‘don’t cut yourself, you may leave marks that people will see when you go to the gym or swimming.’
I was shocked.
Rather than his first concern be infection, triggers or how I can prevent from doing it in the future, his first reaction was concern over other people becoming aware that I was struggling. He was implying that I should be ashamed of my mental illness, that, like the receptionist had also implied, it was something that I should keep hidden.
I was so shocked that I didn’t say anything at the time. But this is what I wish I had told him:
I am not ashamed of the marks on my arm. I’m not saying that self-harm is an appropriate way to deal with the emotions I am feeling but I am not ashamed of where I have been on my journey through mental illness. And if one person came up to me in the gym and asked me what the marks on my arm are, I would tell them my story. And maybe that would help them to understand.
Stigma has also shown up in the reactions of my own family and friends. One person said, ‘but you have nothing to be depressed about.’
Another thought it was reassuring to tell me, ‘this is just your mid-life crisis come early.’
These reactions are the epitome of stigma, something I didn’t realise was so prominent in everything. I’m not writing this to have a go at any of my family, friends, the receptionist or the doctor but I’m just trying to highlight that even the people who you think have an understanding of mental illness, and even you yourself may not fully understand. And that is why continued education is so important. I thought I was so educated on mental illness but even I have so far to go.
And it’s not easy.
It’s not easy to have the conversation with someone about it. Even though I so strongly believe in talking openly about mental illness, I still find myself tugging on my sleeves when I’m out to dinner. I am still disappointed that I didn’t say to that doctor what I wanted to say or that I lied to my dentist that I almost missed my appointment because I had a cold, not because depression was holding me hostage in my bed. Or that I have told people that I dropped out of law because I just didn’t like it, not because my depression didn’t allow me to cope with it.
But I want to do better and I want to challenge myself to be more open about what I am going through because that is the beginning to normalising the conversations around mental illness. Education is so important, but we have such a long way to go to erase the stigma that I have come to realise is so deeply embedded in our society.