Taking Mental Health Medication Isn’t Failure, So Why Do So Many Think it Is?
“In high school… I definitely thought having a mental illness was a failure… in my mind, having any mental health issues was a massive imperfection,” someone else said. “I was ashamed of even thinking I had a mental illness.”
“Going on medication was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make about my mental health… I felt like a weakling for needing medication to simply make my brain work properly… I felt like it meant I wasn’t strong enough to handle this on my own,” another person wrote.
I was in disbelief while reading response after response. We keep our mental health battles hidden from the world, and while seeking treatment is proof that we believe in ourselves and want to help ourselves feel the best we can, we see it as a form of failure.
Cynthia Burlingame, MS, LMFT, explains why society views mental illness and seeking treatment in such a light.
“Anything other than the socially acceptable traits of strength, power and dominance is considered weak,” said Burlingame. “From the day a child is born, they are bred to be mentally strong. Statements like ‘Shake it off,’ ‘Suck it up,’ ‘I’ll give you something to cry about,’ all indicate the value of strength and the disdain of displaying emotion considered weak.”
Burlingame explained this perception goes back to the stigma surrounding mental illness. We see mental illness as not a real problem, and if we seek treatment for it, it’s looked down upon because it’s not that serious. But Burlingame compares this mindset to a physical injury, because “if one suffers from a broken bone, they aren’t shamed for treating it.” When one suffers from a mental illness, it should be no different.
These stigmas are often fostered within our upbringings and surrounding cultures. Amy Barajas, MS, LMFT, said that in certain cultures this stigma can be even more intense.
“In the Latinx community, there’s a huge stigma that therapy is for ‘crazy’ people,” said Barajas. “Families hide their problems because they feel shame… If people don’t know what it’s like to have real anxiety or feel real depression, they sometimes think ‘Why can’t they just get over it?’”
Of course, stigma applies to everyone. Individuals have “waited until they’ve been hospitalized for suicidal thoughts to come for therapy,” explained Barajas. But these situations can be avoided through treatment, and that “part of therapy is helping the individual accept that they need help and let go of the shame associated with their condition,” said Barajas.
The sense of failure doesn’t only stem from feeling like you lack strength or from social stigma. It also stems from feelings of discouragement. Before I came to terms with my mental illness and the validity of seeking treatment, I saw myself as incapable of almost everything. I’d stay home from school, prohibit myself from going out, convince myself I couldn’t get out of bed and the list goes on.
Barajas explained that these thoughts are equivalent to feeling like you’re falling into a dark pit. There seems to be no way out, and it only gets darker. She said the best way out is through professional help.
But it took me eight years to learn that mental illness and seeking treatment are not forms of failure. Rather than continue that mindset, I’m reframing it to think that if I don’t seek treatment for my mental health, I’m only failing myself.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with a mental illness and/or receiving treatment, below are some resources. Therapy is also not solely for those with mental illnesses and can be beneficial for dealing with many of life’s difficulties.