Two weeks ago, I read an article in felix posing the question: “Are we medicalising personality?” The author argues that self-diagnosis of a mental health problem can be risky. I agree. They argue that convincing yourself you have a mental illness when you don’t, can make you miserable. I agree. Something far more dangerous, however, is to convince yourself you don’t have a mental health problem when you do.
If I had read this article in my first, or maybe even early on in my second, year of university, it would have confirmed my worst fear: maybe I’m just like this. Maybe I’m just a bit pathetic, and that’s why I get stressed so easily and spend hours hyperventilating and crying for no apparent reason. And anyway, if I didn’t want to be stressed I should have just gone to lectures and done my work – it’s my own fault for being so lazy and staying in my room all day. My life is fine, and thinking that everything would be better if I didn’t exist, is just melodramatic self-indulgence. Why on earth would I ask for help when all my problems are my fault? I’m just like this.
This is the mentality that stopped me from seeking help until my second year of university, and while I can’t know for sure how much earlier intervention would have helped, I have no doubt that it is this mentality that has largely ruined my university experience. And I am sure that I am not alone in this.
It is extremely common for those suffering from mental illness to have thoughts like this, and blame themselves for problems arising from their condition. I have always been quite lazy, and not particularly sociable. These are personality traits of mine which have always meant I have to put in more effort than many other people into dragging myself out of bed or doing my homework, and make myself go out with friends instead of staying in my room. But that was all it was – just a little bit more effort. It is worlds away from the days when I cannot even bring myself to get out of bed to brush my teeth. I can recognise this now, but since my mental health deteriorated gradually rather than suddenly taking a turn for the worse, it was very easy for me to confuse my depression with my laziness, and my anxiety with self-induced stress. Even when I started to suspect differently and look up information online about depression, I felt an enormous sense of guilt and couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that I was just, as the author suggests, looking for an excuse to hide behind. Terrified of other people forming the same opinion, I did my best to hide it from almost everyone – even my first therapist, to whom I downplayed the impact it was having on my life for fear that she, too, would think it was my own fault. Again, this is not uncommon, but something that many people who have some form of mental health problem experience.
Perhaps I am being naive, but if someone has reason to believe they have social anxiety, maybe it would be better to reach out to friends or people they trust to talk about it rather than “just calling themselves a bit shy”. The troubling implication of this suggestion is that unless you have what the author refers to as a “medically diagnosable mental health problem”, you should just get over it and accept that it’s part of who you are. Reading it now, having been receiving treatment for over a year and spoken to numerous medical professionals, still made me panic about whether or not I really had just been making up elaborate lies to myself and others to cover up the fact that I am lacking as a person. To someone who has not yet sought help, or is not surrounded by the incredibly supportive network of friends and family that I am lucky enough to have, it could be actively harmful.
I am not disputing that the article raises a valid point – there is a valuable discussion to be had about the risks of self-diagnosis and confusion between personality traits and mental illnesses. There is a huge amount of information online, much of it not written by health professionals, about many different types of mental illness, and it is definitely necessary to exercise caution when identifying with the symptoms listed. Feeling lethargic and being reclusive don’t necessarily mean you are depressed, and feeling nervous about a social situation doesn’t necessarily mean you have social anxiety. Convincing yourself that it does, which is very possible (everyone’s made the mistake of turning to WebMD for advice on a physical ailment and decided they’re dying), will be detrimental to your wellbeing. But the article’s focus on warning people against mistaking a personality trait as a mental illness serves to dissuade them from seeking help. There are already enough obstacles to people seeking help without actively feeding the paranoia that they are being irrational and looking to shift the blame for personal failings.