Why is there no stigma when it comes to discussing our genetically inherited conditions like thyroid disorders or high blood pressure, but when it comes to mental illness there is a negative connotation that causes us shame or embarrassment?
Depression, bi-polar disorder, and eating disorders are no different than the BRCA gene you inherited from your mother’s side of the family. It is the lack of education on mental conditions, lack of shared experiences, that create the lack of treatment options and perpetuate this stigma.
I fell victim to this line of thinking when our 12-year-old daughter was first diagnosed with anorexia. I thought I knew what it was but no movie or book I had watched or read in my growing up years gave an accurate depiction of the insidiousness of an eating disorder. Instead of being transparent about the horrors our child and our family were dealing with, we hid her illness under the guise of a “heart condition” so that there would be no negative judgement of our daughter or our parenting.
We thought we were protecting our family. Looking back now, I realize we were just perpetuating the problem. Over the four years that our daughter was taken hostage by her anorexia, we had to be our own teachers. It was like detective work. Despite living in a suburb outside a major city, there was a lack of treatment options. We spent months on internet research, years on different treatment approaches, and every day connecting with other families living this nightmare through Facebook support groups desperate to find a clue on how to help our daughter.
At our first family day at the first treatment center where our daughter stayed, the therapist asked us to describe what being in “recovery” would look like. Of course, our description included a list of behaviors that would indicate the absence of any sign of the eating disorder. Our expectations were not realistic as we learned that what we were describing was the state of being fully “recovered.”
It has been seven years since that first diagnosis and almost four years that our daughter has been in “recovery” from anorexia. Recovery is hard work. Fighting the way your brain is biologically programmed to think is equivalent to a double course load or holding two full time jobs. She did not choose this condition in the same way a person does not choose to have cancer. “Recovered” from an eating disorder is somewhat equivalent to “remission” in the cancer world. No detectable sign on the most sensitive imaging technology, which unfortunately for living with both conditions, does not mean it is gone forever.
When a child is sadly diagnosed with cancer, the whole community rallies together. Fundraisers are held, t-shirts are designed, meals are prepared, and there is an outpouring of love and support. When a child is diagnosed with an eating disorder, the family suffers in silence. We need to change this.
Removing judgement on mental illness means opening the door to earlier diagnoses, treatment, and better outcomes. Once we realize how common these conditions are, we can collectively demand better treatment options that are easily accessible and most importantly covered by all insurance companies.