‘You say you have depression but you still go to work every day, so how bad is it really?’, ‘OK, so you often feel anxious, but I saw you went to a packed-out concert the other day so you can hardly say you have anxiety.’
Do these comments sound familiar? We hope not, but judging someone else’s experience is called gatekeeping, and we need to close the door on it.
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Gatekeeping can take many forms, but generally refers to the act of limiting a person’s access to something, be it a community, a label or even a diagnosis, because they don’t live up to certain standards set by those already initiated. Maybe it’s a fan club for a band where if you can’t name the drummer’s favourite sandwich filling then you’re not a real fan, or a book club where, unless you’ve read the entire Booker Prize long list cover to cover, you can hardly call yourself a bookworm.
It’s disheartening, not to mention infuriating. But when it comes to mental health gatekeeping, things start to get damaging very quickly. We all know that opening up about a mental health problem is the first step to working through it, and talking to people who are experiencing something similar can be really helpful. But being met with gatekeeping comments such as: “You seem to be looking after yourself, so what’s the problem?”, or “When I was going through that I couldn’t even get out of bed, so is it really that bad?”, sets unrealistic and unhelpful standards based on a particular, or personal, idea of what mental illnesses should look like.
But what would drive someone who experiences mental health problems themselves to invalidate others’ experiences? Rav Sekhon, a counsellor with more than 10 years’ experience, believes that when it comes to mental health gatekeeping, there is some comfort to be found in vetting others. “There appears to be a nature of ‘outdoing’ others, and posing oneself as a self-acclaimed expert in ‘how to do this right’,” Rav tells us. “For example: ‘You aren’t depressed if you have a good day, as people who are depressed don’t have that.’” “Some people may find satisfaction in being the leader of their diagnosis –
‘I’m the most unwell.’ It might support them in finding some comfort in what can be a very dark and lonely place.”
To some extent, gatekeeping helps people build a community, or a support system, of people going through the same thing. This is fine for the people who qualify, but not so much for those who have been excluded.
Gatekeeping can have a hugely damaging effect on someone who is just coming to terms with a diagnosis, or who is unsure about whether they need to seek help. Additionally, Rav points out that this type of gatekeeping ignores the fact that we are all susceptible to mental health issues, which may not always be a