DEAR CAROLYN: I’ve struggled with depression and self-injury (among other things) for years, and I recently had a wake-up call that I needed to change things. Instead of going back to college this fall, I’ll be taking a leave of absence and going into an in-patient treatment center to get better.
I know I’m making the right choice, but what should I tell people? My parents are very much of the mindset that this should be kept hush-hush and mental illness should not be mentioned at all costs. I know it’s a subject that is hard for many people to understand, but I am also tired of the burden of having to keep everything secret.
I feel as if telling people myself (without going into detail) is somewhat empowering and will also prevent people from gossiping. If the story comes straight from me, it removes most of the incentive to speculate. I won’t have phone or computer access while I’m in treatment, so I don’t want people to think I’m ignoring them.
I know I don’t owe an explanation to anyone, but is telling the truth to people who ask (and I feel comfortable telling) really so bad? Am I setting myself up to be known as “the crazy one”?
DEAR L.: Only among people ignorant of mental illness and its prevalence, and I’m not sure what you accomplish by keeping secrets solely to appease the judgmental and under-informed.
I would never pressure someone wary of the truth into hoisting the honesty banner for its own sake. But someone in your position – who wants to tell the truth, who is not ashamed of it, who isn’t seeking attention for it, who anticipates therapeutic value in telling it, and who also sees pragmatic reasons for transparency – is uniquely positioned not just to advocate on your own behalf, but also chip away at the stigma that still clings to mental illness.
Certainly it’s not as thick as it used to be, and your parents and their hush-hush shame are relics of another time. But the only way to force that shame into ancient history is for regular people to treat their own struggles as a regular illness. Diane Rehm steps away from her show to rest her vocal cords; Michael J. Fox lightens his work schedule to accommodate Parkinson’s; you withdraw for a semester to treat your depression. Each of these things is like the other.
Managing health is no more scandalous than maintaining one’s car, and I give you a dining-room-table standing O for not only grasping that, but also being ready to prove it – especially at a time when you clearly have more important things to do than running your own PR.