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Mental Illness Does Not Discriminate

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I don’t like to use my blog for rants, but I am angry. And if I’m being compassionate with myself, then my anger is just as valid as any other feeling. So I’m going to give myself permission to write about my anger.

I was telling a friend recently about the presentation I gave at work on self-compassion, and he responded with hostility and disdain. I was not prepared for the attack. I understand that some people prefer the “suck it up” approach to pain and suffering, but why would it make him angry that I teach people how to be kind to themselves instead?

I also had a conversation with another friend who reminded me that many people don’t think the students I work with have real problems. I work at a counseling center of a college that is made up of predominantly wealthy students. Many of the students who come to counseling are the ones who don’t fit in because they are not white, not rich, not Greek, etc. Other students fit in just fine. Other than their mental illness, that is.

Either way, as far as I’m concerned, their suffering is equally valid.

But I seem to be in the minority. Because when I tell people where I work, they question how these students could possibly be suffering. What do they have to be unhappy about? Their lives are great. They don’t have real problems.

This is a sore spot for me because I was one of those people who didn’t have a good reason for my depression. My parents are both doctors. I was able to go to good schools, get a Ph.D., obtain a good job. I haven’t been traumatized. All of my basic needs were provided for. How could I possibly be depressed?

I don’t deserve compassion. Don’t deserve meds or therapy or any kind of relief because I’m just being weak. Lazy. Selfish.

People don’t claim that someone isn’t really suffering from the flu or that they don’t really have cancer because they have a good life. But for some reason, we believe that the privileged are immune to mental illness. I believed this, too. Which is why I didn’t ask for help.

But mental illness does not care what your background is. It does not discriminate. It is an equal opportunity employer, distributing pain and suffering to the entire human race.

For whatever reason, the hostility of these attacks has hit me full force, and I am angry. I’m trying to figure out how to deal with these comments when they come up in causal conversation without attacking back. But I can’t keep people from judging me or my clients or my profession. Not even my family and friends.

In therapy I tell clients to control what they can control. I cannot make someone see the value of having compassion for themselves and for others, but I can have it for myself. I can remind myself that my pain is real and that I deserve to treat myself with kindness. And I can be a voice for those people who need to be reminded that their pain counts, too.

And I can blog about it, which always helps.

About Christy Barongan

I didn't know it at the time, but I wanted to be a psychologist so that I could figure out how to be normal. I think many people come to counseling for the same reason. What I've come to learn is that feeling good about myself is not about trying to be normal. It's about trying to be me. But it's a constant struggle for me, just like it is for everyone else. So I thought I would approach this task with openness and honesty and use myself as an example for how to practice self-acceptance.

37 responses »

  1. I did most of my clinical training during graduate school in college counseling centers. People have no idea how many college students are dealing with serious issues, and significant mental illness. I understand your anger completely. I love your blog, and your courage for writing so openly. Good for you!

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  2. Just discovered your blog from the guest post you wrote over at Stephanie’s blog. I read this post too, and I appreciate your approach (teaching and practicing self-kindness) and the important message that anyone can be suffering. And I thought I’d leave a comment in case OM was checking! 🙂

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  3. Hey there! Love the post, I’m in the same boat as you. I too used to think I wasnt’t “worthy” of a diagnosis of depression (or my other labels, for that matter), let alone “worthy” of therapy with an actual psychologist or psychiatrist. Self-compassion is ever so important but tricky to achieve when people keep telling us to “suck it up” (I detest that phrase). And anyone’s suffering is valid, whether rich or poor or whatever other label they might have. I don’t think anyone should have the right to invalidate someone else’s pain. Just because someone lived a privileged life does not mean they can’t have problems. We’re all human.

    And thank you for the work you’re doing. If your friends, family, and coworkers can’t see that then I want to let you know that I can definitely see it 🙂 take care!

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  4. I think the problem is that most people don’t quite believe that mental illness is really an illness. They think the causes are environmental, not biological, and that therefore privileged people can’t possibly be suffering from them. It’s a stupid argument. The same logic would argue that only poor people would commit crimes, and we know that isn’t true! Not to mention the many, many examples of superstars who have suffered from mental disorders – Kurt Cobain and Karen Carpenter, for example. They had everything, didn’t they? But no one rises to stardom by being weak or lazy, so why make the assumption that this is the cause? No, I think the public needs to be more seriously educated about the biological nature of psychological conditions before they’ll be willing to accept the possibility that such illnesses don’t merely arise because one was brought up in a bad neighborhood or had a parent who beat them. Then maybe people will begin to see mental illness for what it really is – an illness over which sufferers have little control.

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    • Thanks Lori. You are absolutely right. And I think efforts have been made to demonstrate that mental illness has biological causes. It seems like depression is the hardest one foe people to believe because they think it’s a feeling we can control if we really want to.

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  5. I love this. Rants, anger, and all. You should be angry. Those responses are ridiculous (though, unfortunately, not uncommon) and cause a lot of the problems we face in trying to explain mental illness. Like you said, you can’t force people to change their minds or not judge others but you can write about it. And thank you for doing that. 🙂

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  6. I never cease to be amazed by the callousness some people show when it comes to mental health issues. One of my sisters thinks people can decide to be depressed–or not. I have lots of reasons to be depressed and anxious. I don’t think one needs a reason any more than one needs to be poor. I know a young woman who comes from a very good family with well- educated parents. She attended an excellent, expensive private high school. She experienced a couple of periods of very serious depression while she was in high school. Does she have to have a reason? Nope. Fortunately, she received the acceptance and assistance she needed and hasn’t had any serious re-occurrences in about ten years.

    Love,
    Janie

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  7. 1000 Speak- let us encourage each other!

    I have had the voice inside telling me I am not really sick, that I should get on with it. I am soft, gentle, peaceful, and I introjected that these are weak, sick, perverted, disgusting, ridiculous and illusory.

    And now I am allowing myself to be myself, to feel what I feel, to discern what I really want. The pushy parent enforcing one view of what is the successful, appropriate life to the detriment of the child’s real qualities could actually be worse higher up the social scale. All sorts of parents have control issues impacting on the children.

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    • Thanks Clare. It’s strange that it’s acceptable to say those kinds of things to ourselves to motivate us. If a parent said those things to their child, we would say they are abusive. And it is absolutely true that many of the students I see judge themselves as harshly as their worst critics because they, too, believe that they don’t have a right to be in pain.

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  8. Self-compassion and self-kindness is possibly the most important practice any of us can adopt. Many people confuse it with self-indulgence, and I think that is generally why they feel hostile. They assume self-compassion encourages laziness, whereas it’s more likely to do the opposite.
    Interestingly, when I began to practice self-compassion my family became much nicer people!

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  9. Beautifully stated, Christy! Thanks! It’s mind boggling to me that “educated” people reacted as you describe, and it’s a reminder of how little I risk discussing these issues when I might have to hear such offensive and ignorant opinionsaired. Keep speaking the truth — a few of those people you mention are already rethinking things.

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  10. Pingback: 1000 Voices for Compassion | Normal in Training

  11. Pingback: What Compassion is Not | Normal in Training

  12. The irony of the nonsense that rich or privileged people “have no reason to be depressed” is that depression seems to be MORE common among people who don’t have the problem of financial insecurity. I’m not sure why, but people who have to spend a lot of energy making sure they don’t starve don’t seem to suffer from depression as much. This in no way implies that any depressed person, rich or not, does not deserve compassion. It’s just an observation.

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  13. This post really hit home for me. I was diagnosed with dysthymia shortly after graduation from my first graduate degree, and have an obsessive-compulsive personality (not yet edged into a diagnosis) that really interferes sometimes with the ability to relate to others “normally.” I get so so so angry with people who assume that people with various mental illnesses are somehow at fault for their own diagnoses. My perfectionism makes me feel guilty enough about almost everything. My mental health is not, de facto, my fault.

    Side note — I believe almost everyone has something to be worried about. For a lot of us, worry is just built into our nature. I’ve been depressed while stuck in poverty. I’ve also been depressed while financially stable. The reasons may be different, but the feelings are very very the same. It’s no one’s business what makes us depressed (or at least brings depression to the surface). Judgment doesn’t help.

    Thanks so much for such a great post! 🙂

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  14. Beautifully said! I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve been around, talked to, or just listened to so many people who judge mental health issues when they have zero education or experience with it. It’s sad how many people think they know what your pain is/isn’t when they haven’t come near it. I just generally shake my head and walk away from those people.

    Thanks for sharing for #1000Speak.

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  15. Hi Christy,
    Great point. I have a severe muscle wasting auto-immune disease yet because I’m not in a wheelchair, I don’t get much compassion, empathy or diddlysquat at time. My disease is very rare so I don’t have the comfort of meeting someone every street corner and comparing notes and support either. I recently broke my foot and all this compassion etc came out of the woodwork and it really intrigued me. My lung volume has been as low as 43% and I’ve had pneumonia and chemo yet the foot has all this attention and concern bestrode on it. Sometimes, I feel like saying, something but know it’s beyond their comprehension.
    That said, I have received quite a few comments about how much better I look at the moment so I think people just don’t know what to say and don’t want to intrude xx Rowena

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  16. But problems are real to the one who has them. We are just the audience and have just one side view of the boxing ring. The participants have a 360 degree view, and that’s where the difference lies. I might have my perspective and hence a solution, but it might not be THE ONE that works for the other person. And if we can be compassionate about that, then we are A Okay!

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  17. This is beautifully written. I’m so glad to have found you through the #1000speak project. It’s so true that it’s easy to judge before walking a mile in the shoes of a person experiencing mental health issues. People just don’t always get it. I’m glad you’re speaking up and advocating!

    Oh, and I’m sharing this over on my mental health related FB page right now.

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  18. Very well written post. I wasn’t priviliged and I didn’t get help right away. I just kept smiling like nothing was wrong. One day the dam broke!

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