Why I Talk About My Mental Illness

I spent years fighting my brain, trying to heal myself, hide my struggles, and normalize who I am. I have come to (mostly) accept that my serious mental illness is part of who I am.

About a week ago, I received an unsolicited DM on my Bookstagram account. I had posted a photo the night before, referencing how reading books – getting lost in novels – is a refuge for my diagnosed anxiety disorder. The next morning, a probably well-meaning follower offered to send me samples of Matcha tea because she claimed that drink would soothe my anxiety and help my mental health.

Was she correct? Does Matcha help mental illness? According to a quick Google search, Neuroscience News reported in 2019 that a new study showed promising results when people with anxiety drank Matcha (read more here). Nevertheless, this seemingly innocuous DM enraged me. After deleting the DM and blocking the sender, I posted a photo of a green stack of books in support of #mentalhealthawareness that encapsulated my feelings about this unsolicited message. Here is an excerpt from that post:

I have disclosed my mental health struggles and the importance of mental health awareness. On top of sharing my love of books here, I use this little space of mine as a place to vocalize what took me decades to own (and some days I still fight it). Engagement on those posts mean[s] the world to me.

But what doesn’t help? Receiving an unsolicited DM this morning that “matcha will make you feel better” and that “you’re happy to send samples.”

Honey, don’t you think I’m trying every avenue to feel better already? Don’t you get that a serious mental illness is just that – an illness? Your DM reeks of trying to monetize my struggles, with scents of an MLM proposition on the side. Don’t capitalize on my honesty and vulnerability. Don’t @ me anymore.

@jessicareadsmanybooks – 6 March 2022

Why was I so upset? Because it felt too personal and it felt like the sender was trying to capitalize off my disclosure. It’s ironic that a “hard DM / promote it on [insert mental health tag here]” comments flooded the responses to my post, comments that I promptly deleted. But the experience has me thinking about why I post about mental illness.

My #greenstackformentalhealth

Mental Illness Should Not Carry Shame

I spent years fighting my brain, trying to heal myself, hide my struggles, and normalize who I am. I have come to (mostly) accept that my serious mental illness is part of who I am.

At first, as a teenager, I didn’t understand what was going on. I thought I was abnormal and hid my thoughts. I didn’t have the language to describe what was happening. Then, after a vodka-sodden night that ended in me tearfully blurting out the story of my sexual assault in college, my friends insisted that I try therapy. It wasn’t easy. Suicide attempts, psychiatric holds, and bulimia followed. But therapy and medicine helped me to find the words.

I learned that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, just like having any physical illness should not carry shame. My brain chemistry does not work correctly. The chemicals and the neural pathways need a prescribed boost to help me deal with my clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t need to explain this to everyone, but I do disclose when necessary or when I feel so compelled.

We Need to End the Stigma of Mental Illness

Aside from not understanding what was happening in my brain, the stigma of mental illness kept me from disclosing anything for a long time. Despite posting about it here and on my Bookstagram account, I don’t talk about it on a regular basis with people, other than close family. But, I am always aware of it. Completing my dissertation on mental health in the workplace helped me to understand the stigma that people with serious mental illnesses (SMIs) face. Also, I started to gather statistics to quantify the impact of SMIs in the world. I’m clearly not alone.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported that in 2020, one in 20 U.S. adults – 14.2 million people – experienced an SMI (nami.org, 2022). And, one in five U.S. adults (52.9 million) experienced mental illness that year (nami.org, 2022). While the COVID-19 pandemic was a significant influencer of mental health in 2020 and continues to have an impact now, the numbers prior to the pandemic are just as significant:

From 2008 to 2019, the percentage of U.S. adults who had any mental illness (AMI) increased from 39.8 million people to 51.5 million people, and SMIs in the U.S. adult population increased from 8.3 million to 13.1 million people (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2020). So, to break that down into percentage growth over a decade prior to the pandemic: AMIs increased by 29% and SMIs increased by 58%.

Those numbers – before the pandemic and during – are nothing to scoff at. So why does mental health stigma still exist? In my opinion, it’s a lack of education, a lack of awareness, and a deep-rooted fear that it can happen to anyone.

Mental Illness Does Not Discriminate

The research on which populations are more susceptible to mental illness varies; however, it is true that anyone can experience mental illness. The disparities exist in who is more fortunate to have access to mental health services. As a white woman whose employer provides medical insurance, who has the funds to take care of my copays and prescription costs, and who has the option to choose from a variety of doctors, I am extremely privileged. It wasn’t always like this – there was a time in my life where I did not take my medications because of the out-of-pocket expense – but I have access to the help I need.

Others are not fortunate like me.

Statistics about Demographic Groups with Mental Illness

All data provided by nami.org (2022). Of demographic groups that have any mental illness, the groups that have the highest percentage of treatment are

  • Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual: 54.3%
  • Non-Hispanic white: 51.8%
  • Female: 51.2%

Of demographic groups that have any mental illness, those with the lowest percentages of treatment are

  • Non-Hispanic Asian: 20.8%
  • Hispanic or Latino: 35.1%
  • Non-Hispanic black or African American: 37.1%

Treatment is not equalized amongst the U.S. population (or any population). All statistics available from nami.org (2022).

  • 11 years: The average time it takes between onset of a mental illness and treatment
  • 134 million: The number of people who live in a designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Area
  • 11%: The percentage of U.S. adults who had a mental illness and no medical coverage in 2020
  • 11.3%: The percentage of U.S. adults who had an SMI and no medical coverage in 2020
  • 46.2%: The percentage of U.S. adults with mental illness who received treatment in 2020
  • 64.5%: The percentage of U.S. adults with SMI who received treatment in 2020

Why I Need to Talk About Mental Illness

Sharing about my mental illness is not easy. It is not something I take lightly. But for all the reasons above, and more that I can’t quantify right now, I feel obligated to disclose what I struggle with. I have a tiny platform, but I have a voice. It’s important to me that I share it.

But don’t DM me with a proposition to capitalize on my decision to speak out.

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