This was one was the first time in a while I cried whilst writing it. Crying is not a sign of weakness either!
Hi team. My name is Noggy I think we need to talk about mental health. In this video we are going to be talking about the question “does having a mental illness mean you are weak?” The short answer is no. Having am mental illness is not a sign of weakness. I have a mental illness. But having a mental illness doesn’t mean that I am weak. I am weak. If we are honest, we are all have plenty of weakness and struggle with life. We need to stop equating mental illness with weakness. It is both damaging and not true.
When I was younger, I wanted to be seen as a strong person. To me this meant having no weaknesses. It also meant never showing sadness or being discouraged. I had a whole list of normal and healthy emotions I subconsciously categorised as weak. I know it was dumb now, but it was what I believed.
One example of this is when I broke bones in both my feet at the same time. It was so painful. I wouldn’t recommend breaking a bone in one foot let alone in both feet. I just have this memory of sitting in class trying to concentrate but being distracted by the intense pain in both my feet. Every day, all day they hurt so badly. But, because I prided myself in my pain tolerance I didn’t want to complain or believe that it was affecting me. These would have been a sign of weakness.
It also meant that I had to sit out for four weeks of the rugby season. This was fine until the big rugby tournament of the year came up two weeks into my four-week break. The other guy who played my position hurt his knee and could no longer play. So I went to the doctor and begged him to play. He was like “It isn’t a bad break and you won’t damage it too much, so you’ll just have to restart the four week rest period.”
So I played. I was in agony all day. My feet were killing me when I was walking, let alone running and kicking the ball. At the end of each game I would collapse on the ground in pain. During each game I wouldn’t feel any pain as I was so focused on the game. It was a crazy day.
That night the only emotion I could feel was anger. Anger at a weird disallowed try, a poor team performance, and the pain I was in. In hindsight, there were lots of different emotions at play. First of all I was in pain. I didn’t want to show it because I thought it would have been weak. But I was in so much pain. Secondly, There were all sorts of frustrations, shame, and disappointments. Yet, as a teenage boy who couldn’t really process emotions, these just came out as anger. I thought it would have been weak to process emotions that didn’t suit my agenda of strength. If I couldn’t rationalise my emotion using my template of what a ‘strong’ person looked like then I wouldn’t let myself feel it. Emotions like shame or disappointment, and the idea of relying on others were signs of weakness.
Hopefully this sets the scene for a bit of cognitive dissonance when I started struggling with mental illness. Cognitive dissonance is when you have two ideas that contradict but are both there. I used to believe that mental illness only affected people who were weak. They were a sign of a weak psyche. But I thought I was strong. So how could someone who was strong have a mental illness?
Well there were three responses to this.
Response one was to say that what I was experiencing wasn’t depression and if I ignored it would go away.
Nope. Depression is a real illness and ignoring it isn’t wise.
Response two would be to accept that I am depressed, and that is ok because I am so strong I am going to beat it quickly and quietly. Nobody ever has to know.
This was a terrible idea and it did so much damage to me.
I was struggling with such great emotional turmoil because of depression. On top of that, I was invalidating my own struggle. At this point, because of seeing mental illness as a sign of weakness, I was constantly telling myself that I was weak and whilst trying to pretend I was ok. It sucked.
Option three is to accept that I had a mental illness, and that it is ok to have one. It definitely isn’t good, and it is a sign of a messed up world. But it is not a sign of my own fault or weakness. Mental illness does happen to weak people because everyone is weak. They are not a sign or cause of weakness. They are a sign of being human in a really tough world.
When I was younger, I had a messed up idea of strength. I thought if I got rid of all my weaknesses, I could be strong. That is wrong. I will always have weakness and always struggle with life. That is ok. True strength is having the courage to say I am struggling, and I need help. Getting through life with a mental illness requires enormous strength. The day to day of my life now is far harder with a mental illness that it was with two broken bones. It is a tough gig having a mental illness.
Relating mental illnesses to weakness is a really damaging and inaccurate result of stigma. If we treated mental illnesses as real illness we would stop thinking that you have to be weak to suffer from one. To see what I mean, think about me when I had to broken feet. You could argue that I was emotionally weak for being so prideful. But no one would ever say I was weak for the feet breaking if the first place. Nobody would equate the ailment with the weakness. You could say my response to the ailment was weak or strong, but the initial onset of the ailment can’t really be weak.
But with mental illnesses this is exactly what people do. We think that mental illness is a sign of weakness. So we don’t reach out for help and we don’t like it when people talk about. This is wrong. We need to fight this. Mental illness is not a sign of weakness any more than breaking a bone is.
On this note, let’s talk about emotions. This for everyone, but particularly if you fall into the category of being a man. It’s ok to have emotions. It’s normal to have emotions like shame, sadness, or fear. It’s ok to struggle. It’s ok to ask other people for help. Being emotional does not mean you are being weak. Weakness is thinking that you have to do all this without the help of others.
Our attitudes to emotions both relate to and compound struggles with mental health. They go hand in hand.
Recently my mum was telling us about some family history. My great-grandad was part of WWII. He was one of the groups that freed one of the European extermination camps. What he saw during that time severely affected him. Years later he committed suicide. Just like most of the men, he never got to speak about his emotions. Nobody would talk about the war. They had experienced things mankind should never have to and it took its toll. They didn’t suffer from mental illnesses because they were weak. They suffered because they were human.
But nobody would talk about mental illnesses. They raised a generation of men who were taught to never talk about emotions or mental illnesses. When my great-grandad committed suicide my grandad (his son) couldn’t wrap his emotions round it. He and others in the family in dealing with the shame tried their best to explain it without reference to emotions or mental health. My grandfather’s generation then raised another generation who were taught to equate emotions and mental illness with weakness. None of it intentional. But still destructive.
My dad’s generation and my generation are the same. We don’t like to talk about emotions or appear weak. But we need to have tough conversations and we need to reach out.
I am still struggling to process the suicide of one of my friends. But I do know that his struggle wasn’t a sign of weakness, but of his humanity.
We are all weak and we all struggle. We need to normalise talking and healthily processing these struggles. Having a mental illness is not a sign of weakness. Some of the strongest people I know, or even historical figures, have struggled with mental illness.
If you are struggling with a mental illness, it isn’t because you are weak. It is because you are a human in a messed up world. One of the toughest and strongest things you can do is reach out to someone else for help.
Unfortunately, this is a vicious circle. People don’t really like to talk about mental illness because it is an uncomfortable topic. Because nobody talks about it it becomes a more uncomfortable topic. As it becomes a more uncomfortable reaching out for help when you are struggling with a mental illness becomes harder. We need to change this.
If you are struggling, keep fighting. Know that having a mental illness does not meant that you are weak. Reach out to others and get help.
If you are not struggling, champion talking about mental illness is a holistic, healthy, and honest way. We need everyone to be proactive about it. Remember that if you don’t have a mental illness, you will know someone that does.
We need to proactively stop the association between weakness and mental illness. It’s both wrong and damaging. At the same time, we need to normalise conversations about emotions. This can only be done by people, particularly men, modelling it.
Hopefully, this video has been helpful. If so please like and subscribe and share it with others. We need to be proactive in showing people that it is ok to go through a tough time. It is ok to struggle.
If this has resonated with you at all or you have any questions or suggestions, please leave a comment letting me know what you think. Thanks for watching.