by Annie Gerdes
As a soccer coach who is also pursuing a master’s in clinical mental health counseling, this subject hits me very close to home. Throughout my life I have dealt with depression and anxiety and sports helped me cope and survive day to day. I have learned to manage my depression and anxiety by seeking help, playing sports, and talking about it. Talking about it has never been easy though. In our world, people who struggle with mental illness are seen as lesser instead of different. I did not realize until too late in my life that this was not true.
I was 18 years old when I was first told that my mental illness did not define me. I had been struggling for 7 years thinking that I was weak minded and worthless because I lived with depression and anxiety. I thought that my life was not as important because my brain was not normal. Unfortunately, this opinion still exists and is still shared by our culture and society. I contributed to this stigma for 7 years, but that all changed when I decide to work on changing the stigma instead of embracing it.
How do you change a stigma that has existed for decades? It starts with you.
When I first started to believe that my life was just as important as a neurotypical person I started to treat people differently. I felt that I was kinder and more open to the differences we all have.
The first step is accepting yourself. When you can accept and love yourself for who you are you teach yourself to accept and love others too. When you look around a room you cannot tell who struggles and who does not because mental health does not define the person. Just as people live with heart conditions and diabetes, we can live, succeed, and enjoy life with mental illness.
The second step is talking about mental illness. It is not only about accepting yourself; it’s about stepping up and talking through the stigma. We cannot change people’s opinions, but we can show the world that those are opinions and not facts. When someone doubts your abilities to succeed because you suffer from mental health issues, prove them wrong. Show them that your life is already successful, simply because you are here fighting the fight.
When someone pushes you aside because they think they are better than you, show the world that you are amazing just the way you are by being a good person and overcoming all the obstacles society throws our way.
When you embrace your state of mental health, it becomes easier to talk about. Whenever you get the chance, talk about how mental health has impacted your life for the better. Living with depression and anxiety has helped me be open minded, a good listener, and a better friend. It taught me that we are all struggling and different in some way and that we can come together to make the world a better place. Mental health does not always have to be a struggle, it can be a blessing in disguise.
The final step is becoming an advocate for mental health awareness. When I first was diagnosed with depression, I hid it. I would not accept it and used it as an excuse for the way I acted. I promoted the stigma that exists today. After following the first two steps I started to speak up about my struggles and my blessings. I started to advocate for people who felt how I felt at first. I started to open up and embrace my mental illness by helping others who were still hiding.
Today I realize that is is easier for people to talk to me because they know I have been there. They know that I fight the battles every day and they know that I am there to help. You can become an advocate for others once you embrace yourself and talk about it.
While this is all easier said than done, it is all possible. We can change the stigma by talking the small steps to change ourselves and how we view mental health. We cannot change the world alone or in one day, but together we can change it.