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...but you look fine to me?

Monday, 20 October 2014 Susanna

Susanna talks about the difficulties of coping with mental health problems you can see, and those you can't.

Why is it that to be taken seriously, to be listened to, or sometimes even to qualify for treatment, people think that you need to look ill?

Some elements of some mental illnesses can be physical, of course, like the appearance of somebody struggling with anorexia, or scars created through acts of self-harm. But so much of the time there is nothing physically wrong to see. 

As someone who has self-harmed since the age of 13 - and now fast approaching 21 - my body is covered in the giveaway marks that cannot be mistaken for anything other than self-harm. On the rare occasions I have had any scars visible (they are usually hidden due to the fear of triggering, upsetting or influencing others), I have obtained my fair share of rude comments, stares, and looks of horror, fear and disgust. The thing about self-harm though, is that on the occasions there is physical evidence people are able to better comprehend that something is wrong.

But then ignorance sets in. I also struggle with bulimiadepression, and regular suicidal thoughts, as well as having recently been told by a doctor I have extremely high levels of anxiety (as if all the rest wasn't enough!) If any of this is mentioned, people often look me up and down, with puzzled expressions on their faces, before announcing, "well, you don't look ill to me." It is here that I wish they could spend a moment residing in the multi-car pileup that is my mind, knowing that then they would understand that to be ill, you don't need to look sick. Sometimes I am surprised by my own reflection, wondering how it is possible to look so healthy, when the storms are raging so strongly in my head.

"Sometimes I am surprised by my own reflection, wondering how it is possible to look so healthy, when the storms are raging so strongly in my head."

The biggest issue I have with this subject relates to eating disorders, and the idea that to be really ill you have to be underweight, and look sick. To anyone championing this view, I'd like to assure you from personal experience that it isn't true! I wish people would move away from stereotypes and understand that eating disorders are not only to do with weight, but thoughts, feelings and behaviours, regardless of the number a scale shows, and regardless of physical appearance. They control the mind, damage the body and seriously impact upon quality of life, no matter what size a sufferer is, or which disorder they live with.

The view that eating disorder sufferers need to look a certain way can prevent people from seeking treatment, thinking that they are not ill, or ill enough for treatment, even when this is not the case. Often, I am ashamed of admitting I have my disorder - not because I am ashamed of being ill- but because I am scared that people will not believe me or think it's serious, even though bulimia has dominated my life since age 15.

I believe that there is such a risk that any type of mental illness will not be taken seriously, due to the misconception that people who look okay are okay, and I really hope that people begin to realise that saying to somebody who is ill that they "look fine" can demean that person and their illness, and prevent them from seeking the help that they need.

The misconception of the general public that people who are ill have to look a certain way is one of the main reasons that I wanted to get involved in the video for Mind. I wanted to help convey that anyone can be ill, regardless of their appearance, and help to broaden and change people's perspectives and views on those with mental health problems.

"I also wanted to show anyone who may be struggling that they should not feel as though they do not deserve-or are not ill enough- for help."

I also wanted to show anyone who may be struggling that they should not feel as though they do not deserve-or are not ill enough- for help, just because they any not look a certain way or fit a stereotype.

I think that if I had seen a video such as this when I first became unwell, I would have been quicker to seek help and in turn would have improved the chances of recovery for myself.

I really hope that this video encourages people to seek help as early as possible, and that they will reach out to others so they do not have to suffer alone. Hopefully then, people will suffer for shorter periods of time and improve their lives and their chances of recovery. 

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