My first experience with mental health stigma

As a kid, you’re not very good at expressing your emotions.

Typically, when you’re still in elementary school or younger, strong emotions “come out” via physical pain. Things like headaches, stomach aches, nausea, excessive scratching, pulling out hair, etc.

So when I was in 4th grade, somewhere around 8 or 9 years old, I was having extreme stomach pains. Every other night I would feel deep cramps and the sensation of wanting to vomit. I would be in tears because of the pain, and I wasn’t gaining any weight because I never had an appetite. I went to the family doctor several times that year, taking blood, running tests, trying to find out what was wrong.

When all the tests came back negative, the doctor suggested I see a counselor because my physical pain might be a representation of my psychological pain. He was right.

My 4th grade teacher believed in me, I guess. She lovingly tried to push me to the next level in everything I did. Unfortunately her pushing did not result in me becoming better, but rather in me being too stressed to handle myself.

Anyway, fast forward to my first counseling session. I clearly remember being in the waiting room with my mom as she filled out some intake forms. I sat absent-mindedly in the stiff chairs, looking around at pamphlets in clear plastic holders on the wall. Suddenly one of the pamphlets caught my attention. It read, “Are you feeling sad? More tired than usual? Losing interest in the things you used to love? You might have Depression.”

I thought, “Woah, that’s totally me.” and I picked up the pamphlet and turned to my mom and said “Mom, this is me.”

My mom looked at the pamphlet and a look of horror ran across her face. “That’s not you!” she exclaimed, genuinely surprised at my revelation. “…Is it??”

Her look of horror, her exclamation, her general reaction to my pamphlet scared me. I quickly put the pamphlet back in its place and said “No, no. Its not me.”

See, my mom wasn’t trying to scare me out of my feelings. However, it IS scary to think that your 8 or 9 year old might be struggling with depression. In addition, depression is something that runs in my family. I’m sure my mom wasn’t expecting it to hit me so soon – she herself knew what it was like to live with depression, and she wanted me to hold onto the joys of being a kid for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, that reaction did unintentionally tell me something: depression is bad.

I loved my counselor, by the way. Once I graduated out of 4th grade my issues went away. I didn’t return to a counselor until I was in 9th grade, and my counselor then was great too. But for the duration of middle school I had this idea that counseling was bad, depression was bad, and mental health was bad.

I wish I had known the truth sooner. I would’ve been more open to my mom’s suggestions of seeing a counselor in middle school. I would’ve saved myself a lot of emotional and psychological pain if I would have just believed that having a mental illness is not bad.

So I guess the point of this blog post is two-fold: firstly, be aware of the messages you are sending. Whether it is to your friends, your parents, your children, or your co-workers, you never know what message is going to stick. Make sure you are not unintentionally spreading the stigma of mental health.

And secondly, please know that counseling is not what the rumors say it is. I loved my counselors, they really provided a lot of insight into my life and I was able to recover fully from talk-therapy alone. It took a while, but I’m not sure how I would have gotten through without the help of a professional.

If you or someone you know is struggling, please know that depression is not bad. It is not something to scare you into denying your feelings and trying to forget about that pamphlet. You are very special, there is treatment for what you’re experiencing, and treatment works.

If you are in emotional distress, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or chat online at www.imalive.org