World Mental Health Day 2017: How Literature Helps, the Importance of Accurate Representation, and Harmful Stereotypes that Need to Stop

Today is a very important day. It's a day where we acknowledge that not all wounds are visible, it's a day where we give a voice to individuals who have been told to bite the bullet, keep it in, man up and stop worrying. It's for the people who have been silenced after hearing that what they're experiencing isn't actually happening, who have had their feelings undermined and had outsiders dismiss the inner turmoil that seeps into every day of their life by saying it's "just in your head". Just because it's happening in your head, doesn't make it any less real. That's one of the key things I wish people would understand about mental illness - it happens in our heads, you can't see it but that doesn't detract from the devastating impact it has on our lives.

Today is a day where we unlock our rusty voices and scream until our throats are raw, a day where make the invisible visible and the day we fight even harder for more understanding, more compassion and more helpful resources. Too many people have been silenced in their plight to enlighten and it's time that comes to an end.

If you've read my blog for awhile, you'll know that I've suffered with a severe panic disorder since I was ten. I'll leave the link to last year's World Mental Health Day post where I detailed how my mental illness started here, if you're interested in that. I won't go into detail on this post but I'll say that since 2009, I've had bad days. Really, really bad days. Days of barely been able to eat because I felt like I couldn't swallow, days where I would wake up with my heart pounding like I'd just sprinted and go to sleep feeling just the same. I'd feel lightheaded, get super bad chest pains and feel as if I couldn't breathe, I could've leave my house, I couldn't see was bad. 
And it's been on and off like that for eight years. 
I'm happy to say that I've reached a stage where I'm a LOT better. I don't get anxious as much, I hardly get panic attacks at all anymore (I think I've had one or two this year, I used to have panic attacks around the clock so that's a HUGE improvement), I can do stuff by myself (to an extent) when a few years back I couldn't even go to another part of the house by myself... so it does get better. It does. It takes awhile and I still don't feel 100% and I might not feel like that for a long time (does anyone ever feel 100%?) but I'm so thankful that I've reached a point where I'm not spending every second feeling like I'm about to die. 

There is so much I want to write in regards to mental illness but I'll focus on three main things in this post:
  • the importance of representing mental illness accurately in fiction
  • Negative stereotypes and misconceptions that need to stop
  • How literature helps in regards to mental health

The first thing I'd like to talk about is the negative stereotypes surrounding mental illness and, honestly, just the general lack of compassion and ignorance I've had to face when speaking to people about my anxiety. When I first got my anxiety I was living in England and I'd just started year 6. None of my friends knew what anxiety was, none of them could understand it and as I got older, I found people still didn't really understand it. It's only now that I'm reaching a point where I can speak to people about it and they're not harmfully ignorant of my situation. I definitely think social media has had such a positive impact on raising awareness for mental illness and it makes me so happy to see it get more coverage. Also, through Twitter and blogging, I've found people who are also going through it and it makes me feel not so alone.

I didn't know too much about the negative stereotypes people with mental illness face, instead I knew more about the misconceptions about anxiety that I've personally experienced. I decided to do some research and I was so saddened by what I found in regards to stigma surrounding mental illness. It just made me realise how much more we need to talk about it. We need to help people understand.

One of the negative stereotypes that NEED to stop (and one that I've actually noticed when watching the news/series/movies) is that mentally ill people are dangerous and out of control; this stereotype is perpetrated predominantly by media/news outlets and movies/TV shows. Not only is it grossly inaccurate but it's presenting people who suffer with mental illness as breaks my heart that people with mental illness are being viewed in that way and having their illnesses used as a plot device to cause conflict and terror in movies and television. Whenever there's been an act of violence, news teams are quick to conclude it's because that person is suffering from a mental illness. I remember when I first got my anxiety and for a few years after, I never used the term "mental illness" because that was a term that had always been linked to scary, "crazy" people and I didn't want people seeing me that way. The media and the movie business need to stop portraying people with mental illness in such a negative way as that's where people form harmful, false opinions about someone suffering from depression/anxiety etc. It could potentially really affect the way people view and treat us and how we treat ourselves. 

Another harmful stereotype is that people with mental illness can't ever live a normal life and can't recover from their illness. Another thing I've seen in books and movies is people being admitted to psychiatric wards and then they never seeing the light of day again. They remain there for the rest of their life, never getting out. NO, JUST NO. I personally haven't been admitted to a psych ward but I know people who have. You get help, you reach a point where you get better, you might be admitted again at a later date but you won't live your life constantly in a hospital. At my low points I thought I'd be stuck in a rut forever, have to be admitted at some point in my life and that I had no hope for recovery. I wish I could go tell myself that it does get better and there IS help available. Therapy has helped me and I went to natural homeopath as I didn't want to go on prescription meds and it has helped me SO MUCH. The past few months I've seen vast improvements in my mental health - all due to natural remedies. I just wish this positive attitude towards recovery and unconventional methods were given more coverage in media/movies/literature instead of negative stereotypes like the ones I've just listed.

I have also had to deal with a lot of misconceptions about anxiety over the years. Things such as...

Misconception #1: There's a reason for it
There can be, but anxiety can also happen completely out of the blue. A lot of the time something has triggered it but there are also times where it happens for seemingly no reason at all. There are tools to prevent and reduce it (CBT helps with that) and help you manage it more, BUT there was also a point when my anxiety was so bad I would get panic attacks completely out of the blue. I'd be fine and then the next second I couldn't breathe, I was dizzy and my heart was racing. I received comments from people saying "try not to worry" and "what's making you anxious?". Nothing was making me anxious. It just happened. An important thing to understand is there isn't always something obvious triggering us and that oftentimes there's nothing at all that's causing it.

Misconception #2: It's just your standard worrying and everyday stress. 
It's not. An anxiety disorder affects every aspect of your life. Your mood, how you feel physically, your social's not just normal worrying and stress. It's a severe kind that brings a host of physical symptoms that you can feel 24/7 and which, in turn, affects your ability to make friends, go out, engage in your normal's not your standard stress. It's much worse than that. It feels like an unstoppable monster tearing through your body causing you to feel like you're about to lose consciousness, be sick, lose your mind...I could go on and on.

Misconception #3You're not trying hard enough to get better or you don't want to get better
When I was 13, my friend invited me to her birthday party. Going to that party would've felt like I was walking to my death. I was terrified and I felt sick and I just couldn't do it. You might not understand this if you haven't been through it but it's like you physically can't. My friend then proceeded to tell me that I needed to try harder and just do it. I said I can't. It was like there was this huge, sky-high wall stopping me from having a normal life and I couldn't see a way to get past that. I wanted to and I want to get better and I try, but you don't understand how hard it is when your mind feels like a train wreck and your body feels like one too. Everything just seems so insurmountable. It's hard to explain. But NEVER say we're not trying hard enough or that we don't want to get better. It takes a whole lot more than simply wanting to feel okay again.

Misconception #4 - That you can't control it 
Mental illness is often shown as incurable and that you have to live on pills for the rest of your life if you want to have some kind of normal existence. That isn't true. We can get better; be it by learning techniques to manage it or, in my case, taking natural remedies and doing EFT, WE CAN GET BETTER. I honestly never thought I'd reach the point I'm at now...but I did it. I did it without prescription pills because I was really against going on medication so I had to find alternative methods and they're working. If anxiety medication doesn't work (and for a lot of people it does), there are other options. And they can get you back the life you want. It takes time. Also, people need to realise that therapy can really help so much as well! If you find the right therapist, they can help you so much!

Misconception #5 - It's purely a mental thing
I think a lot of people view anxiety as purely a mental thing: you stress and worry a lot. But it's so much more than that. It's utter mental and physical exhaustion, tight chest, chest pains, tingling and numbness in hands and feet, tension headaches, palpitations, stomach name a few. Anxiety can make a person feel absolutely terrible - mentally and physically. Yes, it starts in our heads but it is not confined to it.

This brings me onto the next point: accurate mental health representation matters! SO MUCH. It's so disheartening when you suffer with a mental illness and you read a book/watch a movie that gets something really wrong about mental health, therapy and the recovery process. It can make you feel isolated too. When you're lucky enough to find a book with mental disorders in - you want to see it represented accurately. You want to feel like you're understood. It can be quite terrifying when you see something incorrect in the book and you know that people who aren't mentally ill reading that book are going to be misinformed about what you're going through. Cait did a fabulous post on why representation matters for the Shattering Stigmas event, so I'll link that here. I wholeheartedly agree 100% with everything she said.

We need accurate representation to know that we aren't alone, to give others a voice who are afraid to speak up in fear of being shunned and stereotyped and to enlighten others who are ignorant on the subject.  haven't read a lot of mental health books as there don't seem to be many published that deal with anxiety disorders (and reading about other mental illnesses makes me worry) but I have read good ones that make me cry and say SAME SAME SAME YOU UNDERSTAND ME...and then there have been others that have left me feeling more than a little bit frustrated. One of the best ways to address mental health and make information on it accessible is through literature. This leads me onto my next point of how literature helps those with (and without) mental health problems. 

Literature dealing with mental illness has helped me, personally. It's aided me in understanding my illness better, it's given me some relief to know that what I'm feeling, as a person with anxiety disorder, is normal; it's helped me know that I'm not alone and it's made me feel understood. Having my anxiety understood is really all I want. One of those books was Underwater by Marisa Reichardt. There were times reading it that felt as if I were being punched in the gut because it took me back to a time that I had felt exactly like that. The character thought things and felt things that made me say "Thank goodness, it's normal". Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne is also an INCREDIBLE book. I don't suffer from OCD but there are several things that Evie, the protagonist, feels and thinks that exactly mirror what I've experienced in the past. I remember crying several times whilst reading those books because they got me. I just felt so relieved that what I'd gone through, the things I'd felt and thought were normal for people suffering with mental illness. 

Literature can also help people understand other mental illnesses. Before reading Am I Normal Yet? I knew nothing about OCD. I only (thought) I knew the (stereotypical) cleanliness obsession some OCD sufferers have. After reading AINY? I understood OCD so much better. After reading the book, I knew what not to say to people with the illness, what not to helped me understand them and their situation and see beyond the stereotypes the illness is laden with. Do you know how absolutely wonderfully incredible it would be if mental health was included more in books? Everyone who read the book would be several steps closer to understanding, empathising and helping those suffering with it. I sincerely believe literature could be the key to making the world a more compassionate, empathetic, better place.

Of course, there have also been books I've read that frustrated me slightly. I know this might be considered an unpopular opinion but I wasn't pleased with how Audrey's recovery in Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella was represented. There were things I loved about the book such as the inclusion of anxiety symptoms that I've experienced quite a lot, but I wasn't pleased with how fast her recovery was and how dangerously far it strayed into the "love cures all" territory that I've seen a lot in YA books. I really hope that more authors will STOP using romance as a cure to mental illness. A person can't cure you and books NEED TO STOP promoting this grossly false notion. Like Am I Normal Yet?, I wish mental health books would include positive therapy sessions, realistic recoveries and no romantic cure. It's absolutely vital that we get mental health books right as literature featuring these disorders may be the only source of information for some people. Literature gives us a voice; it may only be a breathless whisper in the beginning but I hope that some day soon, there will be enough exposure of mental health, that that voice will reach a beautiful crescendo. Books gently understand, kindly teach and speak up for the silent - they can change the world. One story at a time can, I believe that. 

What mental health books have you read that you thought had superb representation? Have you faced negative stigma and misconceptions surrounding your illness? Do you also think literature could be key in helping more people develop understanding on certain topics such as mental illness? Let's talk!