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We all accrue labels in high school: jock, nerd, quiet kid, clown. These labels follow us throughout our school years, and even follow us beyond graduation into the adult world. When we run into someone from our old high school class, we wonder if the label they were given back then still fits. We may even approach that person the same way we did in high school, and though it may still feel right, it isn’t fair.
As adults, we have grown and changed, outgrowing the labels we were given in high school. The same goes for the rest of our personal history. Maybe we grew up in an unstable home but now have a healthy, happy family of our own. Maybe we couldn’t keep a job, but now we have worked with the same company for many years. Maybe we have experienced periods of mental instability, but now we are stable.
It was brought to my attention recently that people don’t easily let go of the past. They cling to impressions and labels and hold on to what was, failing to consider the possibility of change and personal growth. This became apparent to me while riding in the car with my sister, discussing my imminent return to school in a few weeks. She commented how, six years ago, I withdrew from college for medical reasons due to poor mental health. She said that, this time, there’s a chance it might happen again. I almost agreed with her until I realized that I am not the same person I was six years ago. I am completely different in every aspect, most especially in regard to my mental health.
Six years ago I was unstable and experiencing a prolonged depressive episode. I was not taking medication nor attending therapy, so my symptoms and emotions were all over the place. Today, I am stable, medicated, in therapy, and working on my coping skills, and I am mentally ready to go back to college.
Because of my mental health history, however, I am not expected to succeed, and that’s unfair.
I’ve experienced this type of stigma not only with family, but with mental health professionals as well. Therapists have discouraged me from moving forward in certain areas of my life because of the way I reacted to and dealt with changes in the past. Instead of holding me back, they should help me to equip myself with the coping skills needed to move forward and change certain parts of my life.
One therapist discouraged me from entering into a romantic relationship because of the way I reacted in the past when a relationship ended. She focused solely on that part of my mental health history rather than on what she could do to help me move forward. In fact, I’d already moved forward and put that part of my mental health history behind me, so why couldn’t my therapist?
It’s called mental health history for a reason; it is history, a part of the past. It is unfair for my present circumstances as well as my future to be stigmatized and restrained by my past. It is unfair to be expected to fail based on past failure. It is unfair to be labeled when that particular label doesn’t fit anymore – not at all.
Stigma itself is both wrong and unfair, but is grossly evident in the mental health community. People stigmatize those of us with mental health issues because they do not understand what we go through, and people stigmatize us based on our mental health history because they lack the ability to see and understand our ongoing growth and recovery.
You are not your mental health history. You are a recovering, growing individual afflicted with mental illness. Your present and future are not limited by your past, and it is unfair of others to tell you how they think you should limit yourself.
You are not what it says in your file at your psychiatrist’s office. That was you before, in the past. You are different now, and capable of great things. Convincing others of this may be difficult, but it is only important that you convince yourself.
Do not let the unfair stigma touch you. You are not your mental illness, and you are not your mental health history. You are in recovery, taking great strides to be in a different place than you were before. Surround yourself with people who encourage you to move forward in your recovery, not those who constantly remind you of your history as they try to limit you.
I repeat, you are not your mental health history.
Madelyn Heslet is a 24-year-old single mother who writes about mental illness to advocate for mental health and do her part to end the stigma that surrounds it. She not only lives as a writer, but as a loving mother and dedicated full-time student. She contributes a weekly column to Painted Brain News