Photo by Sophie Barkham
Written by Samantha Phillips
I began speaking out about my struggles two years ago. As a survivor of an eating disorder and depression, I decided to share my recovery journey – the good, the bad and everything in between. As I reach wellness, I used my triumphs, as a way to show people that recovery and wellness are possible and that happiness is achievable. The thing is – even now I have my bad moments. Some days are still hard. Mental illness is an illness, and it is something I'm going to have to battle for the rest of my life. Although I am well, there are days where I am not okay. I often feel pressured to be well 100% of the time, and I am finding that I am not as comfortable sharing my current struggles along with my successes. Even as role models we are not invincible – we shouldn’t be afraid to admit this.
I talked with a few other mental health advocates about their thoughts on feeling ashamed when struggling. I found that this shame is a common feeling amongst the community, and it is something that is not been talked about enough. Here is what they had to say:
“For many years now I have been doing all that I can to end the stigma around mental health and to show other people who are suffering that they are not alone. I have been living with multiple mental illnesses for my whole life and ever since I started being open about my disorders and being an advocate, I find that people expect me to be okay every single day. I sometimes feel like in order to be a mental health advocate, I’m not allowed to have bad days, because I am expected to be ‘recovered’. When in reality, the reason I am so open about my mental health is to END the idea that you can’t talk about bad days, or that you have to hide your struggles.
The belief that advocates are ‘recovered’ makes me feel ashamed and embarrassed when I am feeling down -but that’s the thing about being mentally ill, you have bad days, and
recovery isn’t linear, these bad days don’t just go away. Everyone has bad days, and we need to show everyone who is ashamed of their bad days that it’s okay not to be okay, you’re doing your best.
I can speak about what I have been through when I was young, and since I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and even what it was like being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder just last year. But when it comes to having a bad day now, it is very hard to admit. It feels like I am a failure, or that I shouldn’t be an advocate, or that I am weak. But I am none of these things, I’m just having a bad day”.
"I think as a role model for mental health awareness there is a lot of pressure to present yourself as okay 100% of the time. There shouldn’t be, because that kind of negates the point, but there is. When you’re in the public eye you have people looking to you for guidance and inspiration. You’re this beacon of hope showing others that it GETS BETTER. For me personally, I feel like when I talk about having a rough time I’m letting people down and tarnishing that hope. I think that’s also why it’s easier being more open about past struggles versus present ones. It sends a message that I’ve made it through so much and others can too! When I’m struggling in the present, there’s almost this feeling of betrayal – that I shouldn’t be a role model or talk about things getting better when they’re not, that I’m an imposter. In reality, though, that just makes it all the more important to talk about it! I still have a ways to go, but I’m working on being less hard on myself and showing the bad with the good. No one is above having a hard time and the more open we are the easier it becomes to erase the stigma."
As an advocate and role model do you feel pressured to be okay 100% of the time?
“I wouldn’t say that I feel pressured to be okay 100% of the time because I am a mental health advocate/role model, I know that everyone has bad days and I am no exception, but as an advocate I feel like I shouldn’t show when I am having hard days. For some reason, I picture advocates as those who have gone through struggles and have ‘recovered’. Even though I know that this is not the truth and that even people that have recovered from mental illnesses have times where they are not completely okay.”
How comfortable do you feel about sharing your current struggles vs. your past struggles?
“I haven’t thought about this before but looking back, I am a lot more comfortable talking about past struggles. I think this is because I’ve had time to look back and reflect about these struggles and see that I have or
am working to get through them. Current struggles are harder for me to talk about because I haven’t been able to wrap them up with a pretty ribbon to share with other people. “
Do you feel ashamed when you are having a rough time?
“I definitely feel ashamed when I am having a hard time. Being open about my experiences with mental illness is somewhat of a new thing to me and it has created a lot of new friendships as well as revamped some old ones. Because of that I have a lot of conversations about how I have felt and how I worked to get out of some slumps. I feel like a lot of times while talking about these times, I talk about them in past tense, but in reality I still fall into times where I feel like that all over again.”
“Being a mental health advocate can be awkward – especially when your timeline and social media feeds are filled with content based around mental health. Before I became serious about supporting mental health initiatives, my social media was predominantly filled with people I knew personally, not advocates/accounts on mental health. But over time this has changed, and it’s easy to feel a great deal of pressure to be 100% okay. Overall, not everyone’s life is as meticulous as it may seem online. There is no true way to know how someone is doing unless you get to know these people on a personal level. The simple fact that people will be judging what we share is what is actually stopping us. I hate letting people know I’m struggling/have struggled, because I don’t want to stress out those who are important to me, because I recognize everyone has their own struggles. Feeling ashamed of having a hard time is very common for me – because I am a people-pleaser, and I hate distressing significant people in my life with small burdens. Overall, being a mental health advocate doesn’t mean we are perfect, it just means we are brave enough to stand up for ending the stigma around it. Everybody has bad days, and that’s okay.”
“One of the greatest challenges of being a mental health advocate is recognizing that I still live and struggle with my mental health. I try my best to inspire hope in others but there are still days where I feel hopeless. There are days where I don’t want to go to therapy and talk about my trauma, even though I know I should. There are moments where I honestly want to give up and let my eating disorder take control again (I don’t really want that but sometimes the daily struggle becomes tiring). As a mental health advocate, I place a lot of pressure on myself to always seem okay but, I’ve noticed that even when I’m not, I can still inspire hope. My life is far from perfect and deep down, I know that’s why my story touches people. As a mental health advocate, I am still human. I still struggle with PTSD and anorexia every single day and that is completely okay.”
“In the world of Mental Health today, there is an incredible amount of pressure as an advocate to be, or appear to be, okay 100% of the time. For me personally, I still struggle a lot. I think, like most recovery, there are good times and there are bad times...and for a lot of people, those good and bad fluctuations stick around for a long, long time...sometimes forever. I am someone who has a passion about sharing her own struggles (both past and present), and I want to hear the stories of others. I want others to feel like they're heard, like their feelings and struggles matter.
Conversation is so important in breaking down the stigmas that still exist, yet one stigma that is not touched on often is the stigma to be fully recovered if you want to be an advocate and speak on mental health issues, and this is so toxic. There's this pressure to constantly stay positive and upbeat and it's exhausting, to be honest. As someone who is sitting in a rough slump, and finding it difficult to grasp those moments of sunshine, I really feel like I don't belong. I feel like a betrayal, and like an outcast. I feel like I don't deserve to have a voice because I'm still struggling. Obviously it's emotionally draining to be around constant negativity, but I think it's also so incredibly important to keep authenticity and transparency within the conversation, and it shouldn't be taboo to speak about what you're going through, even if it carries a heavier connotation. It's important to not only celebrate and cheer on those who are in the highs, but to acknowledge and show just as much support to those who are in the lows.
I don't know if anyone else feels this way, but I sometimes feel like mental health advocacy has turned into a sort of "Pinterest Mom" situation...where everyone is always vying for the newest, most creative endeavours -like there's this checklist that you have to complete in order to be a good advocate, or an acceptable advocate...that you constantly have to be sculpting these elaborate 3D shaped sandwiches instead of just slapping some PB&J between two pieces of bread. I barely have myself figured out, and for me, the most important thing right now is the conversation- just putting one foot in front of the other, so to speak.
I know one day I'll get there, but I don't have time to figure out the rest of it at this point, and unfortunately, a lot of the time that leaves me feeling incredibly ashamed to promote myself as an advocate of Mental Health."
Honesty and conversation are both so important to mental health advocacy and when fighting against the stigma. Ups and downs are apart of mental illness and recovery is not a linear process. To anyone who feels ashamed of their feelings: It’s okay to not be okay” - no matter who you are or what your role in the community is. You can struggle and still be an amazing role model.