Media Production Editor, Graphic Designer
Many communities, specifically academic institutions, have made steps in recent years to create a more open dialogue regarding mental health. This has brought many struggles to light as people take steps toward reducing the stigma that surrounds mental health. As discussions of struggles with mental health become more normalized, a cultural phenomenon has developed – it is becoming increasingly clear that many students have made mental illness into a competition. Our community has begun comparing in their conversations which individual is struggling more. This new idea of a ‘misery competition’ is one that plagues our campus and undermines students who are struggling with legitimate, diagnosed mental illnesses. To build a culture that is genuinely beneficial and supportive, LGHS students need to have civil conversations where both sides are aware that the focus is communicating struggles instead of comparing them. It’s important to recognize whether you’re trying to support another person or prove that you are suffering more than another individual.
While bringing mental health into more open conversations is a step in the right direction, the wide awareness about mental health has clouded the waters as to what it means to have a mental illness. Even just ten years ago, conversations concerning mental health were virtually nonexistent and put people who struggled internally into the shadows. Previously cast as ‘broken’ or ‘different,’ the newly developed culture has allowed struggling individuals to find each other and seek comfort in a new openness of discussion. Yet the culture has progressed so radically that often people hear of others’ struggles and come to the conclusion that their pain is not as significant, and do not reach out for help in fear of being seen as weak. In effect, the environment we live in marginalizes a significant number of those struggling based on the comparisons drawn between mental illnesses.
It is important to acknowledge how easy it can be to fall back on comparisons when discussing your pain with someone else. It’s a natural response to someone sharing their difficulties – often, it’s well-meaning and intended to comfort others through related experiences. But solely using comparisons to support others tends to undermine their struggles, as a winner comes out on top of these ‘crisis contests’ and one side ends up feeling their struggles are insignificant compared to the other. As a result, the conversation ends on a note that suffocates and shames individuals into submission.
So what happens if you find you’re the one who tends to dominate the conversation and attempts to prove your struggles are more significant? If you find yourself comparing your struggles and often try to win the misery competition, it may be valuable to take time and reassess your reasons for doing so. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have a legitimate illness – it may be important to understand the difference between diagnosed mental illness and struggles that come with the normal ebb and flow of life. By comparing your conflicts to an individual who has a mental illness, or worse, invalidating that illness, you are actually damaging the delicate and often already skewed mental health culture.
That isn’t to say that your struggle is invalid simply because you do not have a clinically diagnosed medical condition. It is possible and acceptable to struggle without a diagnosis and to experience hardships that do not have a name. As humans, we go through adversity frequently in familial, emotional and social situations, and those situations are forever adapting and expanding. An important aspect of creating a more positive mental health discussion is acknowledging that all parties have their own unique, personal perspectives. Your struggles do not need a diagnosis or an official name in order to be valid or legitimate. In fact, your personal turmoil is no less important than someone with a labeled mental illness in any sense. Hardship is hardship no matter the name that has been attached to it or if it does not have one at all.
In order to improve the social aspect of these ‘adversity Olympics,’ it is important that we shift our conversations from competition to mutual compassion. The idea of sharing common experiences and reaching a place of comfort and support for each other is far more positively impactful than dismissing another person’s struggles. It’s vital that communities continue to cultivate and promote open mental health discussions but do so in a manner that curbs comparing struggles and encourages affirmative sharing. Attempting to genuinely understand an individual dealing with adversities similar to yours can be healing and comforting and promotes a healthier culture when it comes to mental health. In sharing experiences, we can make individuals in our community feel less alone. As a whole, it is important we approach the conversation without the aim to win a non-existent contest, but instead with a clear focus on compassion, understanding, and support.