The refrain, ‘It’s all in your head’

I was listening to the podcast I reviewed yesterday today about teen mental illness. Mike interviewed Christine Marie Frey, who at age 16, wrote Brain XP, an autobiography about her mental health issues with bipolar disorder, early onset psychosis, anxiety, and so forth. Today, she’s an advocate for the cause, and created a website to help others.

Christine recounted one experience with her new soccer coach where she expressed her feelings to him, saying she didn’t feel welcome within the team. At this time, she was also dealing with her other mental illness issues.

The soccer coach responded, “It’s all in your head.”

Hearing that remark today while commuting to work, I had one of those, I-need-to-pause-this-and-digest moments. That is, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I can believe it because it’s such a common refrain to mental health issues, but still, I was taken aback. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

The common refrain, “It’s all in your head,” is steeped in the stigma around mental illness. It reinforces this idea that the person experiencing mental illness is being overly dramatic, and what they are experiencing is “only in their head.” In other words, it’s not an actual tangible experience, but a figment of an over-dramatic imagination.

And when I say tangible, I mean exactly that. People seem to think mental is something unseen and exists within some non-physical space because it’s operating within the brain and at the neurological and chemical level, but mental illness is physically present. It is physically manifest, not just in the brain, obviously, but in what it does to the rest of the body. That’s why the analogy to cancer has always been an apt and suitable one: You wouldn’t tell someone who has lung cancer that it’s “it’s all in your head.”

But for some reason, it’s acceptable, still, to think of mental illness in that way. As you can see, it inflamed my passions on the subject because it’s not only one of the absolute worse ways to respond to someone trying to open up to you, but in this particular context, it’s an awful way for a coach to respond to a teen trying to reach out. A coach should know better.

As Mike importantly pointed out on the podcast, for that soccer coach? He probably doesn’t even remember that exchange. He probably doesn’t even remember telling her that.

But for her? For Christine? It was a defining and pivotal experience that years later, she still remembers and talks about. Words matter. Particularly, those who are interacting with teens and children need to be careful with their words because of that dynamic.

People react to things like that differently. I know of people who can turn that into, to be PG, “screw you fuel,” and it motivates them, and for other people, seemingly like Christine (and most certainly, myself), it diminishes them, flattens them, and is the exact opposite of what a coach ought to want.

And on a basic, fundamental level, again, it’s bizarre, ain’t it? “It’s all in your head.” Well, yeah? Where else would it be? But the space of the head is weird. We seem to think if it resides there, it’s somehow less-than.

I’m not sure why there exists the inability to reckon with the reality of mental illness. That it’s real. That because it’s real, it affects people, and that affects their experience.

“The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.” ―William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

That’s a key point, too. The depths of mental illness are hard for people to understand who have never experience anything like that, but again, that’s the same for the ravages of cancer. We have to find a way to bridge that empathy gap. We have to find a way to once and for all end the stigma.

We endeavor to do this, sot that, for example, girls like Christine don’t have to hear the words that were partially her undoing in that moment.

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