In the first two installments of the Mental Health Vegan series, we talked with Laura Burnes about living with anxiety and depression, documenting her experience on social media, and how she took responsibility for her own recovery, with support and help from friends.
In this third installment, we talk with Laura about common misconceptions of people living with mental illness and how one can overcome them. By identifying common myths, Laura hopes people will be more understanding of mental health conditions, and that it will be easier for those suffering to combat people’s beliefs to improve their quality of life.
Mental disorders (or mental illnesses) are conditions that affect one’s thinking, feeling, mood, and behavior. Common mental illnesses include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorders, panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, and phobias. More than 44 million people, or one in five, live with a mental health issue in the United States, and the symptoms of mental illness are unique to each person; no two manifest or are experienced in the same way. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating or discussing mental illness. Even though more than half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental disorder in their lifetime, there are still many misconceptions about mental illness and those who suffer.
Laura Burnes, otherwise known as the Mental Health Vegan, suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and depression. Continually learning to live with these symptoms, Laura documents her experiences on her platform, Good Sh-t Daily, to help disrupt the stigma and misconceptions. By sharing her story, and inviting others to share theirs, Laura wants to address false ideas of mental illnesses and give a face to the symptoms.
“It is frustrating that so many people don’t understand mental illness, and don’t know that each condition is pretty different,” shares Laura. “One thousand people with a generalized anxiety disorder could be suffering in 1000 different ways, but it’s so much easier to group people together as a way to better understand them.”
One common misconception, which she addresses in her podcast, is that people with anxiety and depression have trouble being around other people.
“Many don't realize that you can have anxiety or live with depression and still be someone who loves being around people. For me, this is especially difficult because I'm an extrovert,” shares Laura.
Many misconceptions involve how people think mental illness will impact interpersonal relationships. As a result, people choose to hide their experience at the risk of being misunderstood.
“I love going out, meeting new people, being in the middle of the room with a whole bunch of new people, and and getting to know people — but I'm also sweating while I'm doing it.”
Research has documented damaging public opinions about mental illness. In a General Social Survey to analyze public opinion toward mental health conditions, it was revealed that 62 percent of responders were unwilling to work with a man with schizophrenia, 47 percent would prefer not to work with someone who had depression, and another 33 percent believed that people with depression were going to act in violence toward others.
“A few of the misconceptions that always come to my mind are: that we can't be good friends; that we don’t make good coworkers or teammates; that we can’t have good relationships,” claims Laura. “I think people worry about when or if they should tell people that they suffer from mental illness because most people don’t understand what that really means.”
Laura knows what it’s like for one’s mental illness to be misunderstood. Growing up, Laura was often depressed, but her family, unaware that she was suffering from depression and anxiety, misinterpreted her behavior.
“I never got breakfast on Saturday and Sunday mornings at my house when I was younger. I was always so exhausted from the week and all I wanted to do was sleep. I literally could sleep all day. So, my mom would cook breakfast, but then not save any for me. She just called me lazy because I wasn't getting up early enough to eat breakfast. I tried to explain that I was tired, and I need to sleep. And she didn’t know...no one knew.”
As Laura has lived with her mental illness for years now, she is able to recognize the symptoms. This has helped her explain how the depression and anxiety manifests.
“It's like if you wake up in the morning, and you know you have to do ‘xyz’ things today. You want to do those things, but you also can't figure out how to get out of the door to do ‘xyz.’ That's what it's like for me. If I could just walk out of the door, I could get all of this stuff done, but I just can't seem to find the door handle. It's not there. I have to build one to get out and do the things that I need to do. And that's daily. Some days, it's easier. Some days, I'm think, ‘All right. I can do this. I got this,’ and it'll take me 15 minutes get out the door. Some days, I don't get out the door at all.”
Since starting Good Sh*t Daily, Laura has heard many people’s stories of mental illness and often discusses how they learn to get past the misconceptions and stigma that affects their interactions with others. Laura wants her readers to know that despite challenges, it is possible.
Ways you can overcome misconceptions and stigma of mental illness:
Don't let the fear of being labeled with a mental illness prevent you from seeking help.
“We can equate it to physical illnesses, right? You may have allergies, and you just need to take an allergy pills, or not go your friend's house to have a cat. You might have a cold, and you have to get tissues and cold medicine or antibiotics. Then you might have the flu where you need all of the above plus maybe a hospital visit. You have to you have to find it within yourself to put in the work to make yourself better,” says Laura.
Don't let stigma create self-doubt and shame.
Mental illness is not a sign of weakness. Seek counseling, educate yourself and connect with others who have mental illness to gain self-esteem and overcome self-judgment.
Reach out anyway.
As Laura notes, “your family, friends, and neighbors can still be helpful support systems, even if they don’t fully understand what you’re going through. That's the one thing I think that we all wish we had more of - being able to say ‘Hey, I'm not doing okay.’ More often than not, people will ask ‘What can I do?’”
Separate yourself from your condition.
You are not your mental illness and language matters. Instead of saying ‘I'm depressive,’ say ‘I have depression.’ Instead of calling yourself "OCD,” say "I have obsessive compulsive disorder.
Join a support group.
“What led me to want to end my life and text goodbyes to everyone closest to me was hopelessness,” explains Laura. Reaching out to local support groups, and interacting on internet forums, can help you avoid feeling alone and powerless.
Speak out against stigma.
Your voice is important. Consider expressing your opinions and sharing your experience with mental illness. It can help others face similar challenges and educate the public. People’s judgments almost always stem from a lack of understanding rather than information based on facts. Learning to accept your condition and recognize what you need to do to treat it, seek support, and educate others, can make a big difference.
If you are seeking help or need to help a friend, here are the Top 25 National Alliance on Mental Illness resources.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255. All call centers are open 24/7 and calls are confidential. Visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ for more information.