Going Public: Talking About Mental Illness

Going Public: Talking About Mental Illness

Ellen Meny is an Emmy Award-winning reporter and author living in Seattle. This is her story.

Photo Credit: Cameron Thomsen.

Yeesh.

That’s what I think to myself every time I try to start this blog post, because mental illness is hard to write about.

You would think that, after years of living with it, documenting it would be as easy as breathing. I wear my anxiety like a second skin, so why should my story be so hard to tell— especially after I’ve told it so many times?

Of course, that’s never the way it works. As those of us who live with it know, mental illness is messy. It will never work the way we want it to, it will never shrink itself into something neat and easily consumable. Talking about it, writing about it, is hard. But that’s exactly why we need to do it.

I’m a television reporter and a writer. I tell stories, shoot video, and appear on camera almost every day. And for a long time, I was terrified to speak publically about my anxiety— mostly thanks to my own internalized stigma.

 Stigma can take so many insidious forms. It can be discrimination at work from someone who doesn’t understand mental health. It can be a parent, not believing their child is depressed. Or it can come from within— the fear and belief that revealing one’s mental illness or mental health struggles could destroy one’s life.

I had a bad case of that last one. I was scared of telling people I had an anxiety disorder.

I wasn’t completely unfounded in my fear. The TV business is an extremely competitive, stressful business, and not everyone in it is entirely understanding of mental health. Much like any other job, revealing your mental illness could result in either nothing, or a potential black mark on your character. Now, I’m extremely lucky to work for a supportive show and station that embraces people telling their stories— but a few years ago, the climate of our business was vastly different. In my experience, people on TV didn’t talk about their own mental health struggles. Maybe that’s why it felt so lonely.

I think loneliness is an almost universal experience in mental illness. Although there are so many amazing people around the world chipping away at stigma and closing gaps between people and feelings, struggling with mental health can still feel incredibly lonely. And that’s why I felt so strongly about going public with my anxiety— I had felt so alone for so many years, and I didn’t want anyone else to feel that way, if I could help it.

Easier said than done.

Every time I thought about taking to social media to release my anxiety to the world, I thought about the consequences. Would my boss look down on me? Would I lose future job prospects, that evidence of my mental health condition tattooed on the Internet for eternity?

I assumed that if I revealed I had an anxiety disorder— aka a mental health condition, aka a mental illness, aka something that made me a “crazy person”— an angry mob of townspeople would suddenly materialize with torches and pitchforks. I thought my job would be over. I thought my life would be over.

Looking back, it feels kind of ridiculous. And it feels even more ridiculous to write about— but I know openly discussing mental illness can be very challenging and possibly detrimental. It’s a clear and present reminder that stigma is still alive and well.

And despite my promise to myself, that stigma kept me quiet for a long time— until Anthony Bourdain’s death.

Anthony Bourdain has always been one of my creative heroes— as a writer, as a storyteller, as a chef. Hearing about his death affected me in a way I didn’t expect. Shock, grief, and a sudden push through fear and doubt. Suddenly, I felt like I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t talk about my mental health.

I did it the millennial way. I sat down, turned my phone camera on, and then posted the video to my professional Facebook page. It was very short, very matter-of-fact. I talked about my anxiety. I told anyone who was watching that they weren’t alone. And then, I posted the video.

When I hit the post button, it was simultaneously an incredibly freeing and scary experience. It felt like a massive weight had lifted from my shoulders, because it was out there now, and I had no control over it anymore. Of course, I was also waiting for the crowd of angry villagers to burst into my news station and haul me out of TV forever, but, you know, that’s anxiety.

The angry villagers never came. Besides the likes and shares and other Facebook things, the one direct response I received came a few hours later, when I got a text from one of my news contacts. She told me that she had seen my video, and she had sent it to a relative who had anxiety as well. And then, she thanked me for posting it.

Everything seemed to click into place. My promise to myself, my role as a very minor public figure, the power of talking about mental health, as hard as it is. Ever since then, whenever I’ve brought up my anxiety, it’s led to something positive— someone sharing their own story, or bringing up a friend or a family member who’s been affected by mental illness.

For me, there is such power in talking openly about my anxiety— but even a few years later, mental illness is hard to write about, and hard to talk about. I hope that one day it’ll be easy. But until then, I hope you keep writing and talking. Because as hard as it is to do, it is so important.

So, as messy, or small, or strange as they feel, those stories matter. And so do you.

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