Let's sit back and imagine that you're in the shoes of a specialist, preparing yourself to meet a new patient in your office. You don't know what to expect; you don't know what this person is like and you have no idea what health problem you are going to be treating.
Your patient walks in and you note that they smile at you, but seem a bit distant. You can't help but notice that she is watching your every move with scrutiny and yet, she can't look you directly in the eye. Her arms are folded. Her legs are jittering - she doesn't want to be here. You ask her what's going on and what brings her in today. Without looking at you, she answers quietly, and with some reluctance: "I have depression and anxiety disorder. I've had it for ages and I still can't figure out why." You nod, grab a pen and a pad and start writing.
As someone who has the invisible illnesses mentioned above, I am ashamed to admit that my behaviour at my last appointment with a mental health specialist mirrored that of the one above. In fact, that's exactly how it went, and I wish it hadn't been the case. Why did I act this way? Because I was afraid to be there, I really didn't want to be there and because of my low expectations of the visit.
If it wasn't already obvious, I find identifying as a disabled student incredibly difficult. Admitting that you have mental health issues whilst you are a student feels like you are coming out of the closet, as it probably does in any stage of your life. Not in the traditional sense of the term 'closet', but in another sense; a sense of hiding away and fearing having these difficult conversations with people. It is scary, I have hated living in my closet, but it needs to be done. Repeatedly, in my case, because I keep jumping back inside, overcome with shame, which I'm pretty sure is not the general rule for how this works. Currently, I have both feet outside of my closet and am sat inside with the doors open, deliberating what to do next.
In my case, I find it easier to hide my illness from those I am not close to, especially if they are unfamiliar with the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Those who aren't close to me won't notice how much I procrastinate because I find focusing on tasks difficult and that I'm increasingly easily distracted. They won't notice the bags under my eyes because I'm not sleeping enough. They won't notice that I don't enjoy doing all the thing I used to do. They won't notice how stressed and panicked I am almost all the time. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, I'm not saying that these people should be blamed for not noticing these things. Before I was diagnosed, I wouldn't have noticed these symptoms in others either. But I wish that I had been given that knowledge - that I knew the symptoms so I could have recognised them not just in myself, but in others too. If I had talked about these things, if I had the courage to talk about them now, I would have known.
The fact is that lots of other people suffer with mental illnesses that don't just include depression or anxiety, and that happen for a multitude of reasons. In fact, one in four people suffer which means that it's almost certain you know someone who has a mental illness, whether you know about it or not.
It's hard. It's so hard to talk about it. It's a dark and miserable subject that no one wants to really have a conversation about, especially when it's a loved one going through the experience themselves. And on my end, it's difficult to talk about too. It's difficult to 'come out' to someone about your mental health. It's hard feeling like you're letting everyone you love down by being 'different.' But if we don't have these difficult conversations, it's not going to be one in four people who suffer with invisible illnesses. It's going to become four in four who suffer. The truth is that it's important to have these conversations and important to let people like me know that we aren't alone.To give people the courage to step out of our closets, confront our issues and embrace our illnesses and defeat them. After all, a closet is no place for a person to live in. Believe me.