stigma freeToday is the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week, and I guess the purpose of events like this is not to “celebrate” mental illness as such, but rather, as the name implies, to simply raise awareness about the subject.

I first received the diagnosis of my mental illness in my early 20’s. At the time, as well as being scared about what it might mean for my life, I was also incredibly relieved. I finally had an explanation for why my emotions were so intense. It finally made sense that my feelings of anger, sadness, and abandonment sometimes felt bigger than me. It didn’t mean I was crazy. Instead, it was just another part of my life that I had to manage. And just like the physical therapy sessions I attended consistently in order to live with my cerebral palsy, I started going to counseling to manage the symptoms of my psych diagnosis.

It’s hard for me to talk about even now, even though this diagnosis has been part of my life for decades. I don’t talk about it much, out of the fear that people won’t understand it. But I am tired of the stigma that surrounds mental illness in this country, and I know that stigma will never be broken down unless people are willing to have conversations about this subject.

It’s something I wish more people understood. That mental illness doesn’t have to be scary. And that you don’t have to have any professional experience to help me on days when I am having some symptoms. I never expect friends or caregivers to “fix” me when I am having a bad day. On the contrary. When something is upsetting me, I would rather not hear suggestions about how to make things better at that point. When I am feeling my emotions in a big way, it is difficult for me to be logical. I am not interested in how to make things better when I am in that state. And it is probably better for me to come up with my own solutions when I am ready anyway. My mental illness and all the symptoms contained in it are my responsibility to take care of. When I am having a less than stellar day, people giving me support and encouragement is what helps me more than anything. And as always, I encourage people to treat others the way they would want to be treated if they were in the same situation. When talking about mental illness, the golden rule most definitely applies.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 people will experience a mental illness this year. Think about all the new moms who go through postpartum depression. Or people who have anxiety. Or people who have legitimate phobias based on some trauma they have been through. My thought is that almost everyone could be labeled with some mental health diagnosis at some point in their lives.

But therein lies the problem. I’ve never liked labels because in my experience labels encourage people to make assumptions instead of getting to know individuals. Labels have the potential to take a certain way a person’s humanity and dignity. Labels put people in boxes. And although I am aware that some of that is always going to happen in society, I am never going to be okay with people closing up a box like that and putting a bow on it. Labels and boxes are what separate society into “us” and “them.” I am always going to be of the opinion that society should inclusively be “all of us.”

My mental illness is not my favorite part of my personality, but it is there. And although I don’t have to love all of me, I do have to accept that this is part of my life and it always will be. In some ways, it has made me strong. In some ways, it has made me more compassionate. In some ways, it causes my responses to situations to be different than I wish they were. And in some ways, it has helped me to help the people I care about more effectively than I would have otherwise.

I don’t like to talk about it, even now, decades after receiving my diagnosis. I still have a fear that people will not understand.

Today is the beginning of National Mental Illness Awareness Week. People don’t have to understand. Nothing about mental illness has to be logical or make sense.

All I ask is that people be aware.