Like Kristen Bell, you don’t have to stay silent about your mental illness

Kristen Bell is more than just the latest Hollywood star to open up about mental illness. She’s quickly joining the likes of Lena Dunham and Hayden Panettiere as one of the celebrities who really could make a difference to the millions of people facing the same struggles.

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A few weeks after first speaking publicly about her experience with anxiety and depression in an interview with Sam Jones for Off Camera, Bell has written an eloquent, frank essay for Motto about the “all-consuming” debilitation of her depression.

“I didn’t speak publicly about my struggles with mental health for the first 15 years of my career,” wrote Bell. “But now I’m at a point where I don’t believe anything should be taboo. So here I am, talking to you about what I’ve experienced.”

I only recently began to speak (and write) openly about my own mental illness. Until a couple of years ago, a mere handful of close friends and family knew what I was living with. The burden was enormous. I’ve had mental health issues (anxiety and depression; mostly a combination of both) for almost 20 years. That’s over half of my life. But for most of that time, I carried it inside me like a deep, dark secret. I was terrified of anyone finding out. Of how that knowledge would affect their opinion of me. Of people calling me crazy.

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I can see now, older and wiser that I am, that the only thing crazy about me was my determination to hide my illness from the world. Can you imagine trying to hide cancer or heart disease or any other serious physical illness from everyone around you? Impossible, right? The thing about mental illness: that is very possible. No matter how ill you are, without visible symptoms, anyone looking in may still think that all is perfectly fine. How often do we hear of people who lose loved ones to suicide expressing complete disbelief? “I had no idea she was ill,” “I wish she’d told me she needed help,” “She seemed fine the last time we spoke.”

When I did finally speak openly about my depression, I was prepared for a range of responses. Many, many people who now know (and I know they know, because social media) have never reached out to me. This doesn’t bother me — and I’ve never relished sympathy in any case — but it’s sad that the reason it doesn’t bother me isn’t that I don’t want them to care, it’s that I don’t expect them to. For starters, I’m so used to dealing with my illness on my own that having other people’s input still seems kind of alien. Also, I know that many people still don’t know how to react to mental illness in others, so silence is their fallback position. It’s better to say nothing than say the wrong thing, right? Well… that’s debatable.

Other people have expressed concern that I’m letting my depression “define me.” The irony here is that it’s taken me almost two decades to realize that it doesn’t define me. Yes, I have depression. But I’m also a dozen other things, all of which are completely unrelated to my illness and are far more present in my every day life. By sharing my own experience, I’m simply lending my voice to a cause that has been silenced for far too long. Of that I am proud, and I will continue to talk and write about mental health because if there’s one thing that breeds stigma and fosters denial, it’s silence.

For me, saying nothing was simply no longer an option. It wasn’t even really a conscious decision, as I came to understand (and truly believe, which is crucial) that speaking up would be a positive step. After 18-odd years of keeping schtum, I couldn’t bear the weight of secrecy around my shoulders. I do think this has a lot to do with age and life experience. Like Bell, who didn’t have the confidence to talk about her depression early in her career, it took surviving my 20s and the first half of my 30s, becoming a mother and establishing some wonderful, supportive, non-judgemental, inspirational friendships with incredible women to feel like I was in the right place to hold my hands up and say those three not-so-difficult words: “I am depressed.”

“Depression is a problem that actually has so many solutions,” wrote Bell. “Let’s work together to find those solutions for each other and cast some light on a dark situation.” Amen to that.

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