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Anxiety and Depression...So What?

I saw an article recently that lauded Selena Gomez for being open about her anxiety and depression. We see this more and more from public figures lately. The things is, I thought Selena Gomez was diagnosed with bipolar disorder? Of which anxiety and depression can be symptoms. Perhaps the editor opted to refer to anxiety and depression specifically because they felt a greater number of people would relate. My question is… what about the people with bipolar disorder?

Though stigma still exists, it has become almost trendy to talk about one’s anxiety and/or depression. These conditions are painful and difficult, don’t get me wrong, and they deserve attention. However I feel as though we focus on them to avoid discussing the less palatable disorders and mental illnesses – the ones that carry heavier stigma.

I find that we assume that disorders like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder are considered to be less relevant because fewer people are diagnosed with them. The truth is - about 1% of Canadians suffer from schizophrenia, about 1% from bipolar disorder and about 2% from BPD (CMHA and Government of Canada). That’s at least 300,000 people for each of these disorders.

Why do we avoid talking about them? Why do we avoid bringing them to the forefront while we hail those who talk about their anxiety and depression as heroes? Of course this awareness is needed but we should be comfortable discussing less familiar disorders with the same candor. I wonder how many people, especially youth, could have been positively impacted by seeing themselves represented if the Gomez article had mentioned bipolar disorder by name.

The stigma still weighs heavy on those of us with less well-known disorders. I once overheard a woman at a job I held years ago say that her husband “is bipolar. He’s a total psycho.” This made it clear to me that this was not a safe space for me to share or be totally myself. And the places where we can share with peace of mind are few. They are increasing in number but being open and honest about the more uncomfortable side of mental illness would increase those numbers rapidly.

I see no problem in talking about anxiety and depression. They are common and should be discussed with the same attitude as a broken bone or pneumonia. What irks me is the focus on them and the comparatively heavier stigma that exists for other mental illnesses. With anxiety and depression we often see people commenting on a celebrity’s courage for sharing. When it comes to celebrities like Amanda Bynes with less easily understood mental health concerns, people consider them to have “gone off the rails”. In these cases, mental illness no longer deserves compassion, but instead judgment.

A headline reads “Amanda Bynes’ Breakdown: A Timeline.” Bynes has apparently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Meanwhile, headlines about Gomez state “Selena Gomez shares what having depression feels like.” Notice how the article about Bynes describes her mental health journey from an outside perspective, as an observer, whereas the one about Gomez seems to be from her point of view and to prioritize her experience in all this.

I may be generalizing but this pattern does exist. It’s time to change the narrative around the less familiar mental illnesses. The people who open up about these conditions that people often find scary or off-putting are heroes as well.

When someone discloses that they suffer from depression many people find compassion. When someone mentally ill has an episode of psychosis or a difficult outburst, especially in a public space, most people are scared, uncomfortable and try to avoid the situation.

Don’t avoid. Don’t judge. Don’t be afraid. Yes, ensure your own safety, but find compassion. Find ways to help.

The landscape of mental illness is vast and anxiety and depression are just the tip of the iceberg.

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