How the “Laziness Myth” Affects Those with Mental Illness

woman doing yoga

Recently, I have been reflecting on a concept I like to call “the laziness myth.” This myth, as explained by social psychologist Devon Price, is born from a workaholic culture and capitalistic ideals. It tells us that our value is derived from productivity and that we are never working “hard enough.”

As I have navigated a variety of mental and physical health challenges, I have learned just how damaging this myth can be for those with chronic illness or extensive medical needs.

Professionally, I am a mental health specialist. Currently, however, I am not working, and I’m on disability due to chronic illness. My conditions include fibromyalgia, multiple eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder, among others.

As I’ve attended to my health issues, I’ve run into stigma — both self-imposed and from others — surrounding mental health and taking time off from daily demands to recover. It has taken me a long time to combat this stigma and to accept that resting when I need to does not mean that I am lazy.

Making Time For My Health Is Critical

Maintaining my health is a job in itself. I attend multiple therapy sessions each week; I work with a psychiatrist for medication management; I also see multiple other specialists for my physical health conditions.

Prior to being admitted to the hospital for a severe mental health crisis two years ago, I pushed myself through school to get my Bachelor of Science in Social Work and Master of Social Work. During this time, I was struggling with my mental health and using unhealthy coping mechanisms because I was afraid to get help.

I learned how to hide my symptoms from others; I put on an ambitious face and became a “workaholic” so I could feel as though I was succeeding when everything was crumbling around me. It was only after a traumatic loss of a relationship that my mental illnesses became all-encompassing, and I experienced an episode of severe suicidal ideation. I was taken to the emergency room because I was not able to function at all.

The hospitalization was a wakeup call that — in order to survive — I need rest. Afterwards, I took time away from school and work to focus on my mental and physical health.

I Still Struggle To Prioritize Myself

Unfortunately, centering my health and responding to what my body needs has not been easy. I feel guilty for taking time to rest or for being unable to do certain things because my health is in jeopardy.

For example, many of my medications increase my sensitivity to heat and make heatstroke more likely, on top of my current heat sensitivity due to fibromyalgia. As a result, I often spend summer days inside, and I tend to need more sleep. While I see other people spend extra time outside with increased activity, I find myself feeling guilty, as though I am doing something wrong for needing the extra time to ensure that my body is comfortable and safe.

This guilt is often compounded by criticism. Others do not always understand why I am currently unable to work. I have also experienced blatant distaste and outright disrespect from some people who learn I am on disability primarily because of my mental illnesses. As several interactions I’ve had have suggested, rest is often seen as “laziness” and the antithesis of productivity. I used to believe this, too. I was raised to value arduous work above anything else. Needless to say, trying to separate my need for rest from the shame resting brings is something I am still working on every day.

Each day is an uphill battle of trying to choose my health and what my body needs first, rather than what others expect of me. Before receiving help, I didn’t set any boundaries when it came to choosing my needs first. It is hard to make these choices — but I have learned to respect my own limitations, set boundaries, and speak up about my health and well-being.

I Have Hope For The Future

For far too long, people have misunderstood mental illness, and this misunderstanding has forced us to be overly critical of ourselves and challenge the reality of our needs. The emergence of a more honest dialogue surrounding mental health, rest and productivity (like in Price’s work) has taught me that it is perfectly acceptable to function differently than those without with chronic illnesses. I have come to understand that taking care of myself and my own needs is a priceless level of productivity that is more than valid.

Despite what our world might tell you, your outward “tracked” productivity that results in economic gain does not define your worth. You, right now, without having to accomplish a feat, are worthy and important. You are precious as you are. Don’t let society tell you otherwise.

Ashley Nestler, MSW, is a survivor of schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, fibromyalgia, multiple eating disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. She is also a mental health specialist, author and empowerment coach.