Dyslexia is not a mental illness, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect one’s mental health and it can often lead to a mental illness, like depression or anxiety, because of the ripple effect dyslexia can have on one’s whole life – from brain processing, to self-esteem, to work, to independence and isolation. However, the words ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ still carry a lot of stigma. So, if you’re finding the label dyslexia stigmatising, it’s likely you’ll also hate any other labels, especially relating to your mental health.
Well, here’s my opinion: Having mental health difficulties is no less stigmatising than having physical health problems. It’s all part of being part of this world.
Let’s look at asthma. You get medicine for that when needed. You avoid certain environments, pets, or hill walking, to not provoke an asthma attack. You get regular check-ups. You talk openly about it. You even write it down on forms, declaring it without a second thought. It’s perfectly fine. You can’t help it. You were born that way. Your body isn’t functioning like people without asthma but that’s ok.
If you break a leg, you get a cast on it. You avoid mountain climbing and running etc. People will ask you openly what happened and you’ll answer as keenly. You get help and support – maybe even a physio. You know you’re currently limited in how you can live your life, but it doesn’t define you.
You’re off sick with the flu. You’ve been to the doctor; they prescribed rest and fluids. You stay off work. You tell your manager – you even throw in an extra cough for emphasis. You moan to anyone who’ll listen because a bit of extra pity feels good. You binge watch TV and stay in bed all day. People tell you to relax and offer their help. You might even get your meals served in bed. It’s nice.
You can’t get out of bed because you’re feeling depressed. You watch TV but then feel guilty. You don’t want to tell your manager the real reason you can’t come into work. You don’t tell your friends either because you did once, and was told to ‘get over it’. Why are you even depressed, you ask yourself? Life’s good. What do you have to be upset about? Ok, so you did have that ‘thing’ the other day where you were put on the spot and you couldn’t read what you were asked or write what you were supposed to. It reminds you of the other children laughing at you at school. It wasn’t fine. It made you feel lonely. You’ve been told you have dyslexia. It’s not nice. You don’t want to declare it on forms. You feel you should somehow be able to overcome it, unlike asthma. It defines you, unlike a broken leg.
Why is a broken body acceptable? Why is breaking your leg ok, but struggling with your mind because you were born that way, not? How do we hope to change the stigma if we do it to ourselves?
I have dyslexia and am currently trying to find out if I also have dyspraxia. I found these terms very stigmatising once, until I realised it explained all the things about me that I hadn’t been able to understand; the things I had criticised myself for – and instead of stigmatised I felt freed. It was a release. After all, the many names I’d called myself throughout the years were labels too, like ‘stupid’ or ‘clumsy’. However, all the self-doubts I’d had growing up, led to low self-esteem and spells of depression.
I still get anxious when I’m asked to read out loud, but instead of letting that anxiety build, I just say I don’t want to as I’m dyslexic and that’s that. I also say whenever it comes up that I have depression and what I’ve found is that every time I’m honest – instead of pushing people away or feeling ashamed – other people feel braver and say they have problems too. My honesty, instead of isolating me, brings me closer to others. My openness about my struggles breeds inclusion instead of exclusion. That doesn’t mean everyone ‘gets it’ or accepts it – there are still judgemental people out there and there always will be – but it’s not about being accepted by others anymore; it’s about being accepted by myself and I now do, which has taken away from my sense of stigma.
Terese Smith – guest blogger
I found these TED Talks very inspirational and helpful. Maybe you will too:
Emotional first aid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2hc2FLOdhI
Thank you for reading and I hope you found this post interesting. What’s your experience of stigma? Have you seen examples of – or experienced – how dyslexia can lead to other mental health problems? Any advice on how to cope and feel better? Please comment below.