While mental illness has been talked about a lot recently, in some ways it still remains a taboo topic.
For me, as I was growing up, it was something that was hushed up. I wish it had been discussed more openly and widely.
I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the beginning of this year and it has been an uphill battle. This past year with all the restrictions due to Covid-19, I have never felt more alone.
Why did I wait so late to get diagnosed? I was afraid. Afraid that not just society, but my friends and family would also shun me.
Trust me, it is not easy to carry this ‘baggage’ in my head. I cannot tell when I started feeling lousy – maybe 10 years ago. The baggage got heavier as I got older. I was so afraid that I would be seen as a misfit or not normal in the family.
WHAT IS NORMAL?
But then again, what is ‘normal’ in this society? Yes! Society finally learns about mental illness and it is out in the open, but not many really understand it.
There is all this talk about getting rid of the stigma attached to mental health, yet not many people walk the talk. Why does society view mental illness in a derogatory manner to the extent of even hurling insults?
I have seen how when someone creates a ruckus and it goes viral on the net, people are quick to judge. Comments such as “Maybe because they siao, need to go see a psychiatrist” or “Aiyo ignore lah, they gila cannot understand us” are common comments online.
Even those who refuse to follow the Covid-19 regulations elicit comments such as “Wah cannot understand these people. Better send them to IMH (Institute of Mental Health).”
I don’t remember exactly when it started but it began with binge eating for me when I was around seven years old. I was feeling stressed due to family issues. I felt a void in me and I thought eating would fill that void. As a result, I started putting on weight and till today am on the larger side, though I am being treated for it now. In a way, I see the extra weight as an armour that protects me.
LIKE A CURSE
Often with my own experience, having mental illness is akin to a curse. A curse is defined as something science cannot explain but is meant to inflict harm or powerlessness to an individual.
Maybe it is our Asian culture, where one cannot explain why one feels a certain way and we deem it a curse. And one should not feel ashamed or weak if one has mental illness. Again, these emotions prevent people from seeking treatment.
I battled these feelings myself, perhaps the way I was raised and for the longest time I avoided seeing a professional. I fought the demons in my head until I could not and sought treatment.
In the end I had to admit to myself I was not okay and got my diagnosis.
It takes a strong individual to put aside their ego and pride to seek help. Knowing when one needs help is a strength as one realises their limits as an individual and a human.
Let us be honest and face it: we are human, we don’t have superhuman powers to endure adversities by ourselves.
Being diagnosed with mental illness does not mean one is cursed. On the contrary, being diagnosed and then being treated actually helps to bring about a change and improvement to the individuals’ lives.
MENTAL ILLNESS MYTHS
As I write this, I also want to use this platform to clarify some myths on mental illness. We are not crazy nor are we social rejects. These labels only fuel the fire and make us feel worse about ourselves.
I also want to highlight another misnomer that mental illness happens to only a small number of people. According to IMH, in 2018, one in seven people had experienced a mood, anxiety or alcohol use disorder in their lifetime. The numbers tell the true story that mental illness afflicts more people than we think.
Personally, I have family and friends diagnosed with mental illness of some sorts. Yet many keep it under wraps for fear of causing embarrassment to the family.
Not everybody has the mental capacity to do things the same way as everyone else. Families and society have to accept that and allow everyone to heal and grow without judgement.
So, moving forward what can we as a society and country do to help young people like me deal with mental illness? Everyone thinks education is the answer.
In secondary school, during Character and Citizenship Education, mental health was discussed. We would watch videos and attempt discussions in class. Perhaps due to the stigma associated with mental health the discussions were often muted.
Having said that, I did pay attention as I truly believe such matters should be discussed openly. We need more forums and spaces for such discussions in a frank and in-depth manner.
OUR ILLNESS DOES NOT REPRESENT US
While I am all for discussions, please do not use the forums to patronise or pity us. I speak for many people when I say that what we want is to be accepted and understood, not sympathised. Respect that those with mental illness need to heal and grow and that every day is not the same for us.
We want to be accepted and treated like everyone else. Our illness does not represent us. We have our own personalities and capabilities.
While I have opened up about my mental illness in this column, it was a difficult feat for me, but difficult as it is, I am not ashamed. I am healing and growing every day. I am tired of hiding my illness and pretending everything is all right. I am who I am and I hope society can accept me as I am.
I am 18 now, I am still here, I am in a safe zone and not ‘in hiding’ anymore and still ‘a work in progress’. That’s what matters most to me now.
This commentary was first published in AsiaOne as part of a collaboration between the digital news website and Republic Polytechnic’s School of Management & Communication.