One of the most disturbing and damaging influences on mental health, in my opinion and experience, is the romanticising of mental illness to teenagers and the emotionally vulnerable.
Something that fuelled my enchantment with depression, self-harm, and suicide when I was 13 was the idea of a knight in shining armour, who would be drawn to me because of my pain, want to fix it, and rebuild me by showing me that I was worthy to be loved.
This distorted romantic image was perpetuated by novels, songs, poetry, art, and unhealthy relationships.
Being a nurturing person, initially I wanted to enter into these relationships with the idea that I could help and love people who were hurting, and give them hope. Very quickly, though, I got caught up in the relational manipulation of mental illness, and the toxicity it breeds.
Suffering from mental illness (which wasn’t a term we acknowledged, at such a young age) became a mark of intellectualism and a higher understanding of life and self. It was also associated with passionate and beautiful art (drawings, music, drama, poetry, etc.). The music and stories that moved me the most revolved around pain, loss, loneliness, suffering, and anger. More than that, though, being ‘in pain’ attracted the affection of others in the friendship circle. If I wasn’t in pain, I wasn’t loved.
What started as what people call a ‘phase’ of adolescence opened the door to a very real, very long, and very destructive struggle with depression.
Mental illness is often presented as some kind of enlightenment – a life event that inspires beauty. There are no words that are powerful enough to reject this lie.
There is nothing – nothing – beautiful about mental illness. It looks pretty on the outside. It looks enchanting. But it is only a terrible trap, designed to attract the most tender hearts. And once those hearts have been gripped by it, the results are only ever disastrous.
Yes, some of my better writing and poetry came from enduring panic attacks or thoughts of self-harm, but when I read those poems I wrote, I cringe. My chest aches even remembering the pain that I was in. Depression and anxiety stole years of my life that I can never get back. Even now, on the other side of it, I still have to fight to overcome the fear and self-doubt that was ingrained into me during those years. It ruined friendships. It ruined my aspirations. It ruined my self-image, and destroyed my confidence. It made me bitter, angry, and hateful towards the world. It stained me with negativity. It damaged my body in ways that I may never be able to fully recover from.
What’s more, the knight in shining armour never came. He never existed.
Mental illness is not a fairy tale. It is not a love story. There is no happy ending other than getting well. Others can help us with this, but only if we are willing to accept their help – if we are willing to help ourselves.