“You don’t look depressed!” – On being high functioning and why any mental illness should NOT have a look.

One of the many phrases that I hear people say when I tell them that I suffer from depression is “You don’t look depressed!”. And although sometimes well intended, this is NOT a compliment for me. If anything it makes me think about why there is such a big misconception of mental illness having to have a certain “look”. Why do I need to look depressed to make you believe that I actually am? And most all, what is this “look”? Is it smudged makeup from crying, ruffled hair and bags under my eyes? Or a certain way to dress?

In all honesty I don’t know. Because yes, some days I do look exactly like that and other days I don’t. The pictures above were taken on the same day, within a time frame of maybe 8 hours or so. In the first one I am smiling, well dressed, makeup on ready to go out and do things. In the second one I had just finished crying for a good two hours or so, for reasons that I don’t remember anymore. Fact is, that in both pictures I am equally depressed. Me looking “proper” doesn’t take away a whole bunch of feelings underneath.

I spend a lot of my teenage and adult years being high functioning. Meaning, that I was going to school fine, I was showing up to work on time and left when I was finished. I went out, got my groceries done, rarely took a sick day off anything. I was still suffering during those years, I was still majorly depressed. The only difference being that I somehow managed to get stuff done.

A lot of people seem to think that just because you can hold down a job, or do well in school, that you can’t suffer from a mental illness too. A lot of us are suffering, yet they still go to work everyday. Those two things don’t exclude each other, they can coexist side by side and it is often very hard to get help for yourself or to be able to reach out to someone when they only see your functioning side and base their whole opinion of you solely on that.

It’s quite sad actually that people are in fact being refused help, because they don’t fit into a certain image that people have of them. Mental illness shouldn’t have a look, it shouldn’t be judged on that. So many of us are making it through their daily lives, looking fine, you wouldn’t suspect a thing – when inside they may be screaming, yearning for help. Being reduced to your looks makes reaching out for those affected even harder. It automatically makes you think – wait, maybe I’m not feeling that bad after all, maybe I don’t deserve help. It makes us isolate ourselves, get on with our lives unable to find comfort in being able to speak openly about our struggles. When everytime that you dare to speak up, your emotions are invalidated by something as seemingly small as looks, at some point you just don’t talk about it anymore.

It is a shame really, that even health care professionals often enough will reduce you down to the way you look, rather than listening and believing you. It’s a massive kick in the guts to be told that you don’t look “bad” enough to deserve treatment. Why is it that we seemingly have to hit rock bottom first to be able to access the help we may need? Why do we have to break first before we are deemed worthy enough of help? Would it not be better to offer help regardless of whether or not our situation was “bad” enough, so we wouldn’t have to feel that low in the first place? How is that such a alien concept?

A lot of the times when I didn’t seek help, it was mainly because I felt like I was not deserving of it at all. I didn’t feel like I was feeling bad enough to go and ask for it. After all, someone must have had it much worse than me. I was living in the belief that as long as I was working, and achieving something, no one would ever believe me when I would tell them how I really felt.

I truly hope that in the near future our health care system will change into something that is more based on empathy, rather than wanting people to fit into certain “categories”. There is still a long way to go, but I do believe that open discussion about these issues and speaking up about them relentlessly will help end this stigmatisation in the future.

If you ever have been told that you don’t look “bad” or “ill” enough when you decided to reach out, whether by friends or health care professionals, I truly feel for you. Please don’t let their misinformed opinion discourage you from speaking up about your truth and seeking the help you may need. Your feelings are 100% valid, always.

Much love,
Kerstin

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