Opening up about struggles with mental illness can be a daunting task. Many people don’t feel comfortable doing it ― even though such illnesses are quite common.
About 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience mental illness in a given year, and 1 in 25 adults will have a debilitating mental illness that can interfere with their daily lives.
Although mental illness can affect anyone, women are at a higher risk for many conditions, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. They’re also 70 percent more likely than men to experience depression.
In an effort to encourage more people to share their struggles, we talked to four women about diagnosis and treatment for a variety of mental health issues. Here’s what they’ve learned along the way and what they wish others knew:
Location: Inwood, New York
What condition do you have? Bipolar disorder (rapid cycling with psychotic features), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and an eating disorder
What was your journey to diagnosis? I was always anxious as a kid. I used to tell my mom I felt bad because I didn’t know how to verbalize it. I first saw a therapist in middle school, which is where I got the GAD diagnosis. My bipolar diagnosis was rockier in that it was preceded by a manic episode. Bipolar disorder was one of my biggest fears before that, but I didn’t really think I would develop it. As for the eating disorder, I had realized I had “disordered eating” for a while, but I didn’t think it was serious until it started interfering with my ability to take my medications and to function, and I saw a doctor who helped me understand how sick I was.
How do you manage treatment and self-care? I was very lucky in that I had some incredible doctors. I still struggle to deal ― I have very bad days sometimes, and I’m still not great at taking my pills ― but I’ve learned that you have to ride it out sometimes. I let myself grieve by watching TV or lying on the couch for a few hours. And then, with help from loved ones, I try to pick myself up and move on. My support system is immeasurably important in my ability to stay functional. Escaping into books and music always helps, too.
“Believe someone if they say they’re suffering, and offer your support and love. It’s the best and most helpful thing you can do.”
How have friends and family reacted? My friends and family have been nothing but supportive, and anytime I mention my illness to others, I’m usually met with kind words. There is ignorance sometimes, but almost never malice. My husband and my family have struggled with me through some horrible times, and I know they worry still. They just want me to be well.
What do you wish people knew about living with a mental illness? I’m fairly convinced you can’t imagine the helplessness of anorexia unless you’ve experienced it; that you can’t know the despair of depression unless you’ve felt it; that you can’t understand the panic of anxiety unless you’ve struggled to breathe. Believe someone if they say they’re suffering, and offer your support and love. It’s the best and most helpful thing you can do.
What condition do you have? Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder
What was your journey to diagnosis? When I moved to Seattle, I started therapy, which carved out my path for treatment. She gave me a lot of tools, showed me doctors to work with and gave recommendations for other treatments. It’s hard to find a therapist you really connect with, but when you do find one, it’s so helpful and worth it to stick with them. I wouldn’t know as much about my conditions without someone else there to guide me.
I had a feeling I had a mental illness, but always dismissed it. A lot of people gave me unsolicited advice that wasn’t helpful. I thought I was crazy for feeling or being a certain way. There was a time where I had a panic attack while eating a bag of chips alone. The chips weren’t that bad, but the problems I had building up were. I stopped talking about my problems. I wasn’t taking great care of myself.
I also need to mention that there were different systems working against me. One being that I had completely blocked my sexual assault out from my memory. It just came back to me after reading an article one day on the internet. That was crazy to deal with and I haven’t talked about it openly as much. Living in Texas certainly didn’t help me either; patriarchy starts to wear on you after a while and though it’s still present in Seattle, there’s much more space for me here.
How do you manage treatment and self-care? I’m working with two doctors, and I’m on Zoloft right now. I found out I have hypothyroidism, which probably contributes in some way to my depression, and take medicine for that. If you’re starting to look into your mental health, be sure to check in with what’s going on physically as well.
How have friends and family reacted? It was hard for them to understand at first, but to be fair, I was also terrible at explaining it. I wasn’t sure how they could help me, and I’m still bad at asking for help. The more people that talked about mental illness around me, the easier it was for me to be more honest. My family let me know that I could talk to them when I started going to therapy.
What do you wish people knew about living with a mental illness? It’s hard to hang out sometimes, and it’s not because I don’t like you. It’s sometimes hard to even get out of bed, eat, function normally. Sometimes it’s there for no reason. It’s not just sadness; it’s debilitating. It’s hard to get energy. It’s not something that ever completely goes away, and it affects me every day.
Location: Upstate New York
What condition do you have? Bipolar II (my lows are just as bad but my highs aren’t quite as high as someone with Bipolar I)
What was your journey to diagnosis? As a kid, my parents took me to the doctor because I could go from super-hyper to deeply depressed quickly. Childhood bipolar wasn’t known about then. As an adult, I was diagnosed with depression, with doctors just assuming that my good periods were nothing more than it lifting. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that a psychologist looked at the highs as well and I was diagnosed. Before that, I was given meds for ADHD, which I’m really not, and there were horrible reactions to the medications. Even with a diagnosis, I’ve had doctors try giving me antidepressants, which just spin me into a more heightened manic state than I normally experience.
“The nicest thing is to have someone willing to see you when you’re at your worst.”
How do you manage treatment and self-care? I haven’t yet found a medicine that I like, so right now I manage with diet and exercise. I don’t keep it at bay, but can tell the signs and my husband helps by encouraging me to get outside when the depression is creeping in. The mania, I’ve figured out how to channel, and I use it to be really productive and get ahead on projects so that when the depression does kick in I can be less productive and not fall behind.
How have friends and family reacted? My parents are incredibly supportive, and even as I close in on 40 my mom still calls to make sure I’m feeling OK. They both worry (more than I wish they would sometimes) and have learned the signs ― when I go silent, they’ll call because that’s usually an indication that depression is making it too hard to communicate. My husband is also as supportive a man as I could have ever hoped for.
What do you wish people knew about living with a mental illness? It doesn’t mean that I’m not functional. It doesn’t mean that I’m someone to be scared of. My mind is just wired differently and I work around that. It’s neither a dirty secret nor something that needs to be broadcast to everyone. It’s just part of me. My husband used to call it “going down the rabbit hole” when I’d get depressed. He didn’t try to pull me out, he’d just sit with me until I was ready to come out. Just being there is sometimes the single best thing people can do. I can’t be talked out of it, I can’t “walk in the woods” my way out of it. Some things can mitigate how bad it gets for me, which doesn’t mean that’s true for everyone, but the nicest thing is to have someone willing to see you when you’re at your worst.
What condition do you have? I have major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder by diagnosis. I have PTSD due to my childhood rape. I am also on the spectrum and am trans but I view neither of these as conditions or disorders, no matter what the DSM or certain people in society say.
What was your journey to diagnosis? Well, I was 15 and my parents threw me in therapy because I was different and changed from when I was a kid. It didn’t help that I was battling heaps of gender dysphoria and my parents are conservative. Depression and anxiety have basically been major parts of my life since puberty.
I always knew I was different. Between the unrealized [autism spectrum disorder] and the gender stuff in a society of neurotypcial, cisgender people, it’s no wonder I developed major depression and anxiety issues. I learned to adapt, and it has been draining for so many years. By the time I started transition, a lot of my depression disappeared but it is still there. It will always be there. Living in my correct gender has alleviated the dysphoric depression.
How do you manage treatment and self-care? I am on some meds for my depression. [Hormone Replacement Therapy] definitely has alleviated a lot of my body stuff now that I am living authentically. I have benefited from talk therapy in the past. Currently, playing and writing music about it has been immensely successful in helping me live. I have a very supportive community of musicians and music in Seattle.
How have friends and family reacted? Friends have been mostly great because we all are in this together. My parents aren’t very accepting in general of anything about who I am as a person, so I don’t really talk to much other family. I have an amazing wife who is always there for me and I am there for her and her mental illness.
What do you wish people knew about living with a mental illness? It’s weird to think of people who don’t have a mental illness. It seems everyone I know has something. Maybe it’s because we all find each other? Treat everyone the same regardless of what their brain chemistry manifests as. Give accommodations to people seeking them.
Thanks to the bravery and honesty of these four women, we can all take heart in our own battles with mental illness or in interactions with others who may be struggling. Despite what we may think, in the fight against mental illness, we are truly not alone.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.