Fighting stigma with support

It wasn’t until the spring of my freshman year that a good friend told me what was going on. He had had a tough time adapting to college – harder than most – and it was difficult to understand why. When he finally opened up to me, he said that for months he had felt like he was losing control of his mind and that after keeping it inside, for too long, he told his parents what he was going through. He told them that there were certain negative and upsetting thoughts that he couldn’t get out of his head. They would be there when he woke up every morning and follow him at night as he tried to fall asleep. Any effort to forcibly drive them out proved not just futile, but counterproductive. The harder that he strained to “not think” about them, the more entrenched they became. As he described this process, he warily watched his parents’ reaction, worried that they would neither understand what he was saying nor take it seriously. Although his dad responded with immediate concern, my friend could also see he was confused, unable to fully understand the anxieties and thought processes he was trying to describe. His mom, on the other hand, just nodded slowly, as if fully registering and understanding every word he said. After a short silence, she looked up, smiled gently and said, “It sounds like OCD; I went through the same thing when I left home.”

It was as if his world came crashing back into place. After months of feeling alienated, unstable and alone, his mom’s revelation brought him back. Not only did his parents not think he was crazy, but his mom actually understood from personal experience the mental processes he was attempting to describe. Their support reached out to him like a lifeline, and he desperately grabbed on, nearly breaking down with relief.

What followed were months of cognitive behavioral therapy riddled with exhausting mental exercises. He learned techniques to subdue and disregard the invasive thoughts by not giving them so much weight. The mere diagnosis of the illness itself proved immensely helpful. The resentment and anger he felt toward himself for “not being normal” and indulging these thoughts fell away as he realized he had a condition that literally caused his brain to misfire. He slowly began to accept that although what he was going through wasn’t visible, he was as much to blame for it as one would be for catching the flu or breaking a bone. However, he had so internalized the stigma surrounding mental illness that it still took him months to stop feeling embarrassed and ashamed.

The stigma my friend felt can be as damaging as the disorder itself. As a society, we isolate those who most need contact by belittling and dismissing what they go through. Misconceptions and judgments run rampant to the point that they actively prevent people from seeking help, thus perpetuating their alienation. Part of the problem is that it’s difficult for those who have never experienced mental illness to fully comprehend it. It’s hard to empathize with what you can’t see.

Indeed, before my friend’s experience, I often found it difficult to truly sympathize with those afflicted – in fact, in my senior year of high school, another friend who was a little bit older was immobilized by similar thoughts, and I had a very hard time understanding why he didn’t just get his act together. Although I was told otherwise, deep down I still believed that one should be able to control one’s thoughts.

It wasn’t until I listened carefully to the story my friend told me last year that I began to understand the incredible complexity and severity of mental illness. His bravery and openness both made me more aware of the prevalence of mental disorders and gave me a new level of empathy for those struggling with them. My friend says he wouldn’t take back what he went through (and still continues to struggle with) even if he could. He believes he has become a deeper, better person for it. He is probably right. And the rest of us will also become better people if we begin to understand how difficult, and heroic, the struggle with mental illness can be.

Brady Hirsch ’16 is from Oakland, Calif. He lives in Gladden.