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“The light that shines upon her face reveals the mask of her disgrace.” – Emma, aged 13. 

I wrote this simple line of prose when I was entering my teenage years. I feel it is particularly apt for the topic of this article: misjudgement, assumptions and misconceptions.

Prejudging someone based on their behaviour or circumstances (be it wealth, family status, intelligence or social network) is something each of us do everyday. Even the kindest of individuals will not be immune to such a human trait.

The dream job; the birth of a child; a recent engagement; moving into a new home; a wonderful circle of friends; straight As; a supportive family; fame and fortune. Who wouldn’t be on Cloud 9 in these situations?

External appearances are the most difficult judge of character. I have often found that the warmest, kindest, and most bubbly of characters can actually be the ones who are feeling the most broken inside. How do I know this? I’ve been one of those people.

The rise in the number of celebrities who have openly admitted to spells of depression has shone a light on the indiscriminate nature of mental illness. One in four of adults will have a mental health problem at any given point. There’s no selection committee who chooses these unfortunate victims. The physiological and psychological reasons behind mental illness are not fully known, but just like certain people are at higher risk of heart disease, raised cholesterol or cancer – regardless of a healthy lifestyle – there will be certain strands in a person’s DNA that increase the risk of mental heath problems.

It is not, therefore, sensible to prejudge whether someone is coping with life based on their outward appearance, behaviour and set of circumstances. At face value, Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and the late Robin Williams wouldn’t appear to have any hint of depressive tendencies. Other high profile professions are just as susceptible to mental health problems: politics, sport (eg. cricket, football and boxing), modelling, the film industry.

In my mind, success often comes at a cost. The drive and determination to excel in a particular industry is sometimes borne from a personal background of strife, inequality and heartache. You never know what a person has been through in their life: alcoholism, caring roles, bereavement, illness, bullying. As a child and teenager, I found my outlet from pain within education, and a determination to make the most of life given the struggles I’d encountered. Pushing the boundaries of life’s expectations has always been my way of saying “dear life, you think you can break me, but I’ll just prove I can achieve my goals no matter what”. A side effect for many successful professionals is also loneliness, stress and anxiety from the pressures of work. Long hours and a poor work-life balance is something that many people can relate to, and it’s an unhealthy mix when seeking contentment in life. The national cost of alcohol abuse is actually higher in people aged between 40-50 than young binge drinkers in their 20s.

“What have they got to be sad about? Life is perfect for them.”

The stigma and discrimination that surrounds mental illness is one of the key issues that must be tackled. The idea that mental illness is dependent on a person’s current status in life must be changed. There is a stigma in seeking help if, on paper, there is nothing to be sad about. Depression cannot possibly exist in the wealthy, the successful or the loved. Right? Wrong. This misconception simply makes the situation worse for the sufferer. Guilt and selfishness are two feelings that may arise from this way of thinking. “Why should I go to the doctors? There are people in a far worse situation to me, and I am just being weak/ridiculous/pathetic”. This mindset is unhelpful and simply not true. Would the same thought process cross someone’s mind if they had cancer, heart disease or diabetes? Of course not.

It is important to see behind the mask of those with a seemingly happy life, or those with a big smile on their face. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t presume that person’s life is a natural beacon of sunshine and rainbows. And don’t forget to ask the one question that should be applies to everyone: “How are you?”

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