The competitive culture of mental illness

With statistics suggesting that 1 in 4 of the general population will suffer from a mental health problem at any point in their lives, it goes without saying that we all know somebody with a mental illness. But as an individual who has spent prolonged periods of the past 8 years in and out of the revolving doors of psychiatric hospitals and A&E departments and openly discussing my mental health issues with friends, family and strangers, it is with little surprise that I have built a large framework of friends and acquaintances all with experience of a mental health condition (or two, three, four..). In fact, many of my closest friends struggle with anxiety, depression, BPD or bipolar disorder and being able to share experiences, struggles and triumphs can be comforting.

That being said, as this community of those with mental health problems grows and blossoms all over my social media accounts, so does the increasing degree of competition among them. Don’t get me wrong, being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa myself which is an extremely competitive condition, I am more than familiar with the pressure that mental illness brings, as it warps you into believing that you must be the “best anorexic”. The hope is that once a problem has a name, a label, it is understood and thus the appropriate treatment can begin. But with anorexia nervosa, the label can be catastrophic. In Emma Woolf’s ‘An Apple a Day’, the author managed to describe this debilitating process of diagnosis perfectly:

“On a personal level, let me tell you what the repeated use of that label does. It makes you sicker; it traps you in the condition. They have defined you as an anorexic, so you must be thin, right? From that point on, whenever you eat (even if it’s just raw carrots) you feel like a fraud. If you were a proper anorexic, you wouldn’t eat, that’s what the voice inside your head tells you.”

I understand. I have felt the uncontrollable hatred towards other eating disorder patients who were admitted into hospital whilst I was already heading towards weight restoration. I know what it’s like when extremely emotionally unwell to despise somebody simply for believing they are a better anorexic than me because they are thinner, rather than to notice the beauty both in their face and nature as they comfort me on a hot summer night when I have been denied of leave to see my family, or when my body feels riddled with disease when in fact all it is full of is nourishment which I have learned to consider as dirty and unhealthy. It is so easy for an illness to warp your view of life’s most generous and caring people based on how your mind perceives them in comparison to yourself. When insecure, as many depressed, anxious or eating disordered individuals are, comparing ourselves to other people is an automatic reaction and I do completely understand.

Nevertheless, what I don’t understand quite so much is this current battle among the unwell to prove that they are more unwell than one another; to prove that their suicide attempt was more serious and thus their depression is more severe or in more desperate need of treatment; convincing the world (and themselves) that making it into the local newspaper for absconding to the Dartford bridge, thus causing concern to those who know you and hours of traffic for those who don’t, is some form of accomplishment to boast of. This kind of competition is so unhealthy and is intoxicating a community of innocent, unwell people who only want to recover.

I must state that I am not judging people for the content they wish to share on their own social media profiles – we all have a freedom of speech and nobody is being forced to follow your profiles if they disagree with the content you share. The aim of this post is most definitely not to ridicule or target anybody, but instead to hopefully make a whole community of people reconsider what they are trying to achieve by such posts.

If you are simply posting surrounding your issues as an outlet for your emotions, I understand. Sometimes communicating verbally can feel virtually impossible and if only written forms of communication feel manageable for you right now, I am by no means trying to stop you. (I will however suggest instead exploring the idea of writing a private diary; I did this a lot when most unwell and I found it very beneficial).

On the other hand, if you are posting these updates to prove some kind of point to an audience, then please pause to think. You do not owe it to anybody to prove that you are unwell. We believe that you are struggling with a very serious mental health condition without knowing the details of your most recent ligature attempt, without knowing the doses of every medication you take and how often and definitely without knowing how many hours it has been since you have eaten or how you managed to purge the contents of a meal without a member of staff knowing. We believe that you are seriously unwell without explaining how you managed to abscond from a secure hospital to make it to the highest level of a multistorey car park or the rails of the tallest bridge in the county. We know that whatever illness you are diagnosed with will affect every aspect of your daily living without you having to show us posts of your open self harm wounds or the handcuff bruises on your wrists as a result of police restraints. We know and fully believe that you are sick and unsafe without knowing every detail of your recent section under the mental health act. We know, we believe and we sympathise. We are here to support you in any way we can, even without knowing these details. 

Please stop proving that you are sicker than the other inpatients in your hospital, sicker than those who have always been treated as an outpatient, or just generally sicker than anybody else in the world because no mental illness is more worthy of support or acknowledgement than another. Instead of being proud of every hospitalisation, restraint or detainment under the mental health act, try recognising each small accomplishment towards recovery instead.

Right now, whilst you are unwell, I do appreciate that perceptions are twisted and harmful acts may feel like an accomplishment but as somebody who has been truly in recovery for the past three years, I can promise you that in years to come your cognitions will completely change for the better. Did you know that it hurts me now if I am told that I look as though I have lost weight? It really fucking hurts. It hurts because I have spent three years (excluding relapses) putting every minute piece of energy I have into weight restoration so when you tell me that I look thin I really am horrified as I am trying my best. Did you also know that it hurts when you look at my scars as a sign of illness? I look at the gauges scarred into my previously blank canvas of skin as a sign of healing. With every second that passes of every day, every scar is slowly healing. I do not want you to look at my arms and thighs and see my scars as a sign of me being any more depressed than anybody else. They are a sign of recovery and it hurts me if you suggest otherwise.

Instead of trying to inspire the community of mental illnesses around you by being the best anorexic or the most depressed, inspire those who are struggling by being living proof that it gets better because hand on heart, I can promise you that it does. Do not use the depths of the troughs to be the best at being ill but only use them to be able to fully express the comparisons to the peaks which are only possible by making the choice to recover (that’s right, recovery is a choice; a choice which you must continue to make every single day).

I do not write my blogs because I want the world to know how unwell I have been over the past 8 years. I write my blogs because I want to be living proof to others that even when an individual has been extremely unwell, this gloom can be risen through because even after the darkest of nights, the dark will end and the sun will continue to rise.

Inspire positive change, not negative x x x


One Comment Add yours

  1. Becky says:

    Love this. Really well written. X


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