You Don't Look Mentally Ill

I can’t be depressed; I’m smiling…  Photo by:  Seth Shimkonis

I can’t be depressed; I’m smiling…

Photo by: Seth Shimkonis

I am very well aware of how not depressed I look.

Sadly, I long-ago mastered the art of looking better than I felt. That is not a symptom of depression though, it is a symptom of being a person in polite society.

We avoid airing our dirty laundry in public.

We keep the skeletons in the closet.

We put our best foot forward.

There is a certain amount of presentation, in society, and much of our childhood is learning how adults act so that we can be ready to step into their place. The Rituals of Dinner: The Origin, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners, by Margaret Visser, is a delicious read if you ever wondered why we eat with forks, or why pointing a knife at someone is considered rude.

Certain topics are not discussed at the dinner table.

Certain behaviors are discouraged.

Certain ideas are taboo.

Much of becoming an adult is learning what not to say and how not to behave. We excuse very young children from some misbehaviors because they do not know any better. They have not learned to hide how they feel. A three-year-old boy squeals too loudly in delight at some amusing sight, or sobs uncontrollably if he loses his toy. His behavior is annoying, but understandable. He is, after all, only a child.

Children lack refinement. It is telling that we use this term to describe cultured behavior when, in industrial settings, the term means to “remove impurities or unwanted elements”. You are only considered “refined” when all of your unwanted behaviors have been buffed into a pleasing outer shine.

Because mental illness is invisible, we are naturally terrified of it. There is no way to tell if a person is good or bad, cultured or uncultured, refined or barbaric, mentally sound or mentally unwell, without visible signs as evidence. Mental illness is the scariest boogie-man there is, so when confronted with a person who claims mental illness, out comes the common retort: “You can’t be ill, you don’t look sick.” I agree, I look perfectly normal. So do you. We are both acting, even if neither of us really wants to admit that fact.

Organizations like NAMI, the AFSP, and the Hayden Hurst Foundation are helping to educate all of us on better etiquette when interacting with the mentally ill. Just as it is considered impolite to ask a woman her age, or to give unwanted advice; with enough work, it should also be considered impolite to tell a person that they don’t look like they’re mentally ill.