Beyond the Problematic Stereotypes of the Most Common Mental Illnesses

By: Danielle Bechara

“People with glasses are smart.”

“People who read are intelligent.”

These are two examples of not-so harmful stereotypes, right?

“People with OCD love to clean.” 

“Depressed people are sad all the time.” 

“People who suffer with eating disorders starve themselves all day.”

Spot a difference?

Most of the time, mental illnesses are stereotyped in a way that can be very harmful to the majority of the people that suffer from them. Mental illnesses are portrayed falsely on many forms of social media. 

We’re all familiar with the TV show “F.R.I.E.N.D.S”. If you’ve watched it, you probably remember Monica being showcased as the character who suffers from OCD. Now, we know that Monica loves cleaning. Whenever she sees something out of place or slightly dirty, she stops everything and runs off to fix it. This is, unfortunately, one of the many OCD stereotypes that the media has normalized. Let’s debunk this.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a complex and debilitating disorder that makes daily life tasks hard to do. Before we move on, let’s get one thing straight, not everyone with OCD has compulsions related to cleanliness. A lot of people with OCD are hoarders, they often feel the need to store so many unneeded items. As I stated before, OCD isn’t just a disorder that includes the fear of germs or contamination, it also includes:

  • Fear of committing mistakes.
  • Fear of harming others or themselves.
  • Fear of loved ones dying.
  • Fear of certain numbers, colors, or words.

Yes, you read that right. Fear of certain numbers, colors, or words. Can you imagine how hard your everyday life would be if you were to be afraid of the color purple for example, thinking it represents a sense of bad luck?

Sometimes, their intrusive thoughts can be very disturbing (sexual or violent) and they feel disturbed and trapped in their own head. Can you imagine how hard that must be?

Well, those with OCD don’t feel the need to imagine. Usually, people who struggle with OCD know that their thoughts are irrational, but they feel the urge to engage in their compulsions i.e: My parents will die if I don’t turn off the microwave 2 seconds before the beep.

It’s not because they’re crazy, it’s because it’s something they can’t control. It’s also about feeling anxious and distressed that they engage in their compulsions to relieve their anxiousness. 

“I’m so moody, I’m definitely Bipolar.”

“Being Bipolar is just being moody.”

Let’s face it, we all know someone who has said these phrases before, or it might even be you. Let me let you in on a little secret (not much of a secret as it is a fact actually), being bipolar is not only facing mood swings. Yes, Bipolar Disorder, is encountering mood swings but they’re not like the ones every-other human has. They’re extreme and constant. Having Bipolar Disorder is also having unstable relationships, impulsivity, inappropriate anger, low self-esteem, reckless behavior, fear of abandonment, intense attachment to people, the need to control things and people, lack of sense of identity, feeling lonely, dissociation, and the fear of the future.

So, stop saying that you’re Bi-polar  just because you’re moody, it’s so much more than that. I mean do you really think people who suffer from bipolar enjoy having it? They don’t go around and say that they’re Bi-polar, and they most definitely do not use it as an adjective. 

Let’s talk about sleep. Now, I know what  you’re thinking: “Danielle, why do we possibly need to talk about sleep?” For some, sleeping is – well, it’s something normal, very normal actually. Most of the time, people don’t put much thought to it or any effort. You just need to plop down on the pillow, close your eyes, and enter the world of your dreams. Well, that’s not the case with people who struggle with Insomnia. 

“Insomnia is just not being able to get a good night’s rest or sleeping very late.” 

“I stayed up past 3 am, I definitely have Insomnia.” These are some stereotypes that people have normalized about Insomnia, which are obviously wrong. It is true that Insomnia is the inability of falling asleep, but it’s also way beyond that. It’s also being incapable of staying asleep or waking up too early. Insomnia is caused by either work, school or family-related stress. It is also caused by trauma. Insomnia can lead to not feeling rested throughout the day, not being able to focus on your daily routine, and feeling tired immediately after waking up. Like other mental illnesses, it’s something that you can’t just control or stop instantly. The dark circles under their eyes won’t magically disappear, and taking melatonin won’t really help either. 

Here’s  a mental illness that most teenagers in this generation struggle with, Depression. We’ve all heard the phrase “I’m so depressed” being used when someone is trying to explain their form of sadness. But that’s not what depression is all about. Being depressed is not those sad edits or quotes you post on your Instagram story and it’s certainly not just crying. Now, everyone has different symptoms and ways of coping with Depression but these are the most common effects. Most of the time, people who suffer from depression don’t feel comfortable talking about it, but others do. Some people gain weight because they use food as a type of escapism, and others lose weight because they have a loss of appetite. Some can’t bring themselves to get out of bed, not because they don’t want to, but because they just can’t,their brain doesn’t allow them to. Most of the time, it doesn’t show when people are depressed.

They can be walking around and cracking jokes with a bunch of people, being the life of the party, but on the inside they’re just numb with no emotion fueling inside of them. Or, in other cases, they isolate themselves from everyone because they feel worthless, hopeless, and  like a burden. Some feel the need to cry, and others are just numb to the point that they can’t let a single tear fall out. They lack energy and motivation which causes them to lose interest in activities they used to love doing. Many people who suffer from depression either lack sleep or sleep too much because they don’t see the need to do anything else, and use it as an escapism technique.

Not because they’re lazy, but because they’re mentally exhausted and tired from the random and unexplained bursts of aches and pain. This often leads to poor hygiene because they can’t bring themselves to go and take a shower or brush their hair or teeth. They lack concentration, memory loss, and the inability of making decisions which leads to difficulty functioning at school or work. 

“People with Anxiety are just over-reacting.”

“People with Anxiety need to calm down and stop stressing all the time.”

Anxiety can’t be controlled. They can’t just calm down on their own. Telling people with Anxiety to calm down is like telling a person who’s dying to “just breathe you’ll be fine”. Exactly, makes literally zero sense and can’t possibly work. Anxiety isn’t just defined as the panic attacks and it isn’t just one type. There’s also social anxiety which prevents you from talking to people or attending certain social events because you feel like you’re being secretly judged or watched. It also prevents you from talking to people. Anxiety can also stop you from feeling like yourself and holds you back from the things you want to do. It makes you feel like you don’t fit and like everyone would be happier without you around. It also includes overthinking every decision you want to make, feeling overwhelmed by small lists of tasks, and not being able to process what’s going on around you.

They often tend to develop habits like biting their nails or lips. People with Anxiety also have a hard time reaching out for help because they feel like they’re going to get judged or they fear embarrassing themselves. It’s like being trapped in your mind with no escape out. As I mentioned before, Anxiety isn’t just the panic attacks, it’s also the anxiety attacks. Those are two different things. Let’s differentiate between them. Panic attacks usually happen without any warning. They can be out with friends and they can randomly get a panic attack which is very sudden and extreme. Symptoms of panic attacks vary for every person but the majority of the time they include dizziness, shaking, nausea or stomach pain, trouble breathing or hyper-ventilating, muscle tension, sweating, heart pounding, chest pains, chills or hot flashes, depersonalization or derealization, and feeling as if you’re being choked.

Panic attacks make you feel like you’ve completely lost control and might  make you feel as if you’re dying. Yes, they’re that intense. Anxiety intensifies over a period of time and stress reaches a level that is overwhelming. This may result in an anxiety attack. Anxiety attacks usually have specific triggers and they gradually build up. The symptoms such as disturbed sleep, muscle tension, difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath, startled responses, increased heart rate, and irritability may be persistent and very long lasting. 

And last but not least, let’s talk about eating disorders. There are many types of eating disorders like Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating. A huge misconception that people have about eating disorders is that they have a certain look and they are only common for females. For example, people with eating disorders have to be skinny, they starve themselves all day, and they can’t recover. These are also false. Eating disorders do not have a look and they certainly are not restricted to one gender. You can’t possibly tell if a person suffers from one by just looking at them. Not everyone that suffers from an eating disorder is underweight. Tons of people who suffer from ED’s are overweight.

As I said, not everyone with an eating disorder starves themselves. Binge eating disorder is a type of eating disorder in which people feel the need to eat a lot of food in a short period of time and they can’t stop because they lose control. This leads to a dramatic amount of weight gain and they feel disgusted with themselves after eating so much. It might be due to stress, or feeling uncomfortable with their body image . Eating disorders are also not just starving yourself all day. You can be having a full meal with your friends but that constructive voice inside of your head would be telling you, “you don’t deserve food”, “search up how many calories that has”, “you’re getting so fat”. It can also be eating normally for a full week but then relapsing at the end of it. Eating disorders are not something you can control and they are part of the daily lives of the people who suffer from them.

They can’t just eat or stop eating.

Certain stereotypes about mental illnesses are really damaging for the people who struggle with them because they often invalidate their feelings and symptoms. It also makes the mental illness come off as something easy to deal with which is entirely wrong. I hope that by reading this, you learned how difficult dealing with certain mental illnesses is, and if you have a friend that struggles, make sure to go and provide them with help and tell them you’re proud of them. Also, if you feel like you relate to most of the symptoms mentioned, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for professional help. 

Sending lots of love your way, 

Danielle.

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