The Burden of Proof

From therapists:

“You were just laughing out in the lobby, so you’re clearly having a good day.”

“You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.”

“You’re not overweight, so I’m wondering where the issue is here.”

“Why are you depressed? You have a lot of friends.”

From friends:

“You’re so oversensitive. You need to learn to not be so sensitive.”

“You’re eating your food just fine right now. You don’t have a problem.”

“You need to stop being so pessimistic.”

“I’m not talking to you until you take your medicine.”

I include those not to shame anyone who has tried to help me in the past, but to explain my encounters with the misunderstandings regarding mental illness that present themselves even among mental health professionals and, I will confidently admit, myself.

We know that mental illness exists. Fine. Now how can you tell if someone has one?

The problem is, you can’t.

Not without talking to the person and really hearing their story, anyway. And if mental illness is so hard to spot, imagine the difficulty of proving to someone that you are struggling. I’ve experienced this quite a bit over the past few years. I’ve had to prove the sadness that I can’t overcome, to prove how hard it is for me to even talk about food, let alone eat it, and to prove that I’m anxious when my friends and I are out, joking and laughing all the while.

Unfortunately or fortunately (I haven’t yet decided that for myself), a mental illness can’t be seen. It’s not a broken bone or the flu. The symptoms might not always be apparent, so when they are, they can come as a shock or a call for attention. Please hear me on this- no one wants a mental illness. And I, personally, have much better things to do than feign depression or tell you I already ate as you offer me a cookie, when I’ve actually been hungry all morning.

The burden of proof too often falls on the person who is already in pain. One of the many reasons that this is so dangerous is that a person who is experiencing a mental illness may not fully understand their own condition. This was true for me. Society had taught me that I was a “big girl,” so by that I figured that someone like me couldn’t possibly have an eating disorder. Once I finally came to terms with it, I faced a myriad of people who tried to convince me otherwise. So, I became further convinced that I didn’t have a problem. I stopped seeking treatment but the disordered eating habits continued, and I got worse. This is not uncommon for those who are struggling. Treatment can be costly, time consuming, and taxing on the mind and body…and people may be a lot less likely to continue if they are consistently told that it’s not worth it, that they’re faking, or that it’s just a phase (it’s not).

If you read only one piece of what I’ve written, please let it be this- the most important thing you can do when someone confides in you about a mental illness is: believe them.


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