Silence surrounding mental illness is toxic. It creates a community in which the people who are struggling are shamed into internalizing their issues, and those who are not struggling are completely uneducated. As a campus, we have found many ways to work on solving this issue, and the progress we have made is tremendous. Although it can be extremely powerful to write in detail about individual experiences with mental illness, I want to focus on why people, including myself, sometimes take so long to reach out, and how we can begin to engender help-seeking mindsets and actions.
During the first month or so of my recovery, I felt this intense shame surrounding my eating disorder. Every time I went to Graham House I would say I had to go to Community Engagement, and when friends asked me what I did, I would panic and say “helping kids.” I wasn’t so much afraid that people would know I was going to Graham House, but that when they found out I had struggled with anorexia, it would become an indelible part of my identity. This was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to leave it behind. I wanted to forget that it had happened, and I did not want other people knowing it happened. I was so afraid that when my name popped up on Facebook or on a class roster that someone would think, “Oh, she’s that anorexic girl,” and for some reason this would leave me unable to change, unable to move past it and be healthy.
I was unable to let go of this fear that somehow if I reached out and said that I was anorexic, I would be taking away from people who had eating disorders so serious that they were in hospitals. The fact that I had managed to keep myself out of the hospital somehow made it less valid than everyone else’s issues. I thought I would be lying, saying that I had anorexia. I also felt guilty for not recognizing how lucky I was to be alive. The mortality rate associated with anorexia is 12 times higher than any other cause of death for girls 15-24 years old. In my eyes I was someone with a light cold surrounded by people who had the flu. I was lucky to be alive and lucky I didn’t have serious medical problems as a result, and how could I complain about my eating disorder? For so long, I gaslighted myself. I told myself it wasn’t that bad, and that if I said I had an eating disorder I would be invalidating the struggles of so many other people.
A lot of times we do this terrible thing where we criticize ourselves for not being happy or grateful that we don’t have it worse. We look around and see other people with more work, harder classes, harder circumstances, less privilege and harder struggles. We then look around at our own issues and downplay them, because we feel we don’t deserve to be complaining about or even recognizing them. We take away our own right to feel sad or angry.
At Andover, this happens so frequently that it prevents us from seeking help. Especially when conversation surrounding mental illness is silenced, people in need stop asking for help, and ultimately stop believing they deserve help at all. Before Andover, I dealt with my eating disorder for a year at a public high school. Not once did mental health come up in conversation in any class, assembly, sport or club. I felt horribly alone. The difficulty that some mental illnesses pose is that they can be invisible. It is important that we are able to acknowledge that there is a problem even if it is not visible, and that we then proceed as if the illness was physical. Say your roommate has mono. The first thing you would do is try to get them to a medical professional that is trained to treat people with mono. There is a gap between how we regard physical and mental illness, and it can be extremely dismissive and exclusive towards survivors of serious mental illnesses. For this reason, in the same way our campus endeavors to be inclusive in other ways, we need to work towards being inclusive in terms of mental illness. We need to be able to have more open conversations about mental illness and the overwhelming stigmas surrounding it so that people feel encouraged to ask for help.