I have read a lot of blogs and articles with people outraged that people have no understanding about invisible illnesses. As a mental health blogger it’s easy for me to climb on the bandwagon but as usual I like to ponder things from a different angle. Mental illness by no means has the monopoly, most cancers, diabetes and most illnesses involving internal organs are on the list of invisible illness.
Someone came to me the other day and told me about being jeered at in the street. He was confused about why but it made him angry and upset. The gentleman in question has a learning disability and the likelihood is that the way he was standing/walking/looking may have looked out of place/unusual, he is unaware that he looks different. Why would someone jeer at someone with an obvious disability? It’s plain cruel. It made me stop and think about how I feel about my illnesses being completely hidden.
I smile as I recall the number of times, while seriously unwell, even sectioned, in hospital, I was mistaken for a nurse on the ward. Most of the time, from my general behaviour and demeanour, no-one would have been able to tell the torture going on inside my head. No matter how unwell I’ve been I’ve always washed and dressed and tried to face the day.
Sometimes mental illness is more apparent, for example if someone is unkempt, looking withdrawn or responding to stimuli other people cannot perceive. But most of the time mental illness is relatively hidden if not invisible.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
When I despair about having a hidden illness, am I seriously suggesting it’s better or easier when the illness or disability is on show? I have wept when I’ve watched documentaries about people with facial disfigurements, the stigma, the shame they feel and the impact this has on them day to day as they fear people staring, pointing and making judgements is totally undeserving. Katie Piper is a stunning example of someone who talks openly about what it’s like. I cannot begin to imagine how people manage a condition people can see.
Perhaps this is a blog about judgements people make.
Why, whether obvious or hidden do people make assumptions and judgements about other people’s abilities and disabilities?
Why should I be afraid to park in the disabled bay? If I have a blue badge it’s because I need to park closer to the building, should it matter to other people why? The wheelchair is the universal sign for disability, it does not mean I have to be in a wheelchair to use the space. People with conditions from autism to fibromyalgia, from COPD to paraplegia need to use disabled parking. Why is it anyone else’s business? If I have claimed a blue badge fraudulently, this is a matter between me and the authorities, not Joe Blogs Public.
On the flip side, just because someone has a visible illness, disability or condition, it seems that people make judgements about what they can and can’t do. For example, the gentleman I wrote about earlier (with the learning disability), we are working very hard with him to become more independent, which he is managing very well and it’s building his self esteem. But the people in our local shop assume he cannot do this and therefore insist on him giving them his shopping list so they pick items for him, it is well meaning but completely unnecessary and making him think he can’t do it!
The benefit of an invisible illness is that you can choose to keep it hidden, no-one else has to know unless you wish to tell them. The down side is, if people assume I’m ok, I do not get the help and support I need.
The stigma and discrimination experienced by someone with an invisible illness is due to lack of understanding and awareness that the illness exists, the assumption is, if you look normal, surely you should just get on with life?
The stigma and discrimination experienced by someone with an obvious illness is due to people making inaccurate judgements about something they think they understand but the reality is they do not understand at all.
Why do we place so much importance on appearance? We need to stop judging a book by its cover. Just because I look “normal” don’t assume I can just get on with life; if I look different, don’t assume I’m not capable.