Culture, Life, Wellness

But You Don’t Look Sick: Highlighting the Stigma Against Invisible Illnesses

We need to face the facts; there is a stigma against people who don’t seem “sick enough.” How often have you heard somebody complain when a person parks in a handicapped spot, despite having the placard, because they don’t “look” disabled?

For some reason, because the person wasn’t in a wheelchair or using crutches, it didn’t “appear” that they were disabled in any way. Unfortunately, this mode of thinking is commonplace. What most people don’t consider or possibly even realize is that the individual could have an invisible illness or disability that hinders their everyday life.

What is an invisible illness? Invisible illness is an umbrella term that refers to a number of debilitating illnesses and disabilities that aren’t physically apparent. These illnesses range from mental afflictions such as depression and personality disorders to chronic pain syndrome and fibromyalgia, with several in-between.

Unfortunately, people judge by what they see, and often determine whether someone is capable or not just by how they look. Therefore, those with invisible illnesses seem fine. Where’s the harm in this? Well, the fact is, invisible illnesses are exactly that, illnesses. It’s not up to us to determine if they are “fine” or not, and doing this strengthens the stigma that exists. Those with depression are seen as lazy, those with anxiety disorders are seen as uptight, and those with chronic pain who require handicapped spots are just faking it. It creates discomfort for those of us who have these issues and erases our experiences.

On that note, the stigma wants our symptoms to be obvious. As someone who’s mentally ill, it’s made me second guess myself several times over. If I don’t fit every symptom of my mental illnesses, it feels like I’m making them up. It feels as though I can’t possibly have OCD because I don’t spend three hours cleaning my house every day, or my depression doesn’t exist because I’m having a positive week; this is a result of the “but you look so good” mentality. The fact is, appearances don’t always dictate a person’s health. Looking sick has nothing to do with being sick in this case. Furthermore, it creates a lot of insecurity. Believe me, when I say, we are already insecure enough. It’s time to end this kind of thinking.

Why is all of this relevant? If you are neurotypical, you need to look at things from another perspective. If you aren’t neurotypical, you need to know that you aren’t alone. It’s difficult to relate if you don’t have invisible illnesses, but you can try to understand. If you have the flu or bodily pain, you take medication for it. Soon enough, it goes away. However, what if that pain never left you? What if that period of sadness you felt stuck around on a near-daily basis? Imagine trying to live with this while explaining to your boss, your friends, and your loved ones that you feel constantly offset when you look fine on the outside? This is the reality for so many people.

Ultimately, those with invisible illnesses are seen as lazy, unfriendly, obsessive, unsocial, weird, and other hurtful things. It’s our job to end this behavior because living with these issues is hard enough. Look up some resources on invisible illnesses if you need guidance or insight. Talk to a friend whom you know has some of these problems. Ask a mental health expert. The first step in ending this stigma is understanding how it works and why it exists. It’s time for all of us to move forward and help one another.

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