I have seen a lot of lists lately on various websites describing the experiences of people with mental health conditions to those who have not experienced them. While the basic idea of these lists is well intentioned the more I read, the more I dislike them. While this is a step in the right direction and of course it is always positive for people to be able to speak more openly about their experiences; I also feel that there are some issues with these lists that need to be addressed. I will focus on lists describing experiences of anxiety as it is what I can personally speak to but there are also these types of lists for other specific mental health conditions and for mental health in general. Here is what I want you know and keep in mind when reading these types of lists:
- There are different types of anxiety. Many of these lists are labelled as about anxiety in general but actually address many different kinds of anxiety including panic attacks, social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder etc. While there are commonalities between the experiences of these different kinds of anxiety there are also a lot of differences. This means all the points on the list are likely not representative of all experiences of anxiety. As I read through these lists I think, “Yes!”, “Number seven is so true!” but then I read number eight which appears to describe social anxiety. Then I think “Nope, not for me, but I don’t have that condition”. I think this is problematic because a general reader who has no knowledge or understanding may misunderstand and confuse different conditions which can lead to wrong assumptions and further stigmatization.
2. Individual experiences of mental health conditions vary from person to person even within two people diagnosed with the same disorder. In order to meet criteria for diagnosis you usually only need to have a certain number of symptoms out of a varied list. That means that one person’s experience with something such as a panic attack can be very different from another’s but they both technically have a panic attack. On some of these lists I have read descriptions of panic attacks which are not in line with my own experience. That doesn’t mean that person’s experience is not legitimate. It’s important to acknowledge that it only applies to the person who wrote it and may or may not be true for others.
3. Be careful with what you do with the information. Just because you have read the list doesn’t mean you now know and completely understand what someone is going through. Certainly you have an insight into how someone with the condition may feel but that doesn’t mean you are an authority on it. The only way you will ever truly know is if you go through it yourself someday. This may sound harsh but it is important to use this information to show empathy for others rather than to inform others of what it is like to be them or how they “should” be feeling.
4. Don’t apply the points to people you know. These types of articles are usually created from responses submitted from individuals about their personal experiences and that’s all they are, a collection of experiences of individuals. If you really want to know what it is like for someone you know or love living with a mental health condition, ask them! If they are open to it, you asking would probably mean a lot and it also lets them know that you are a safe person to talk to when they need support.