Will The Mental Illness Stigma Ever Go Away?

No.

The mental illness stigma will never go away.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

I live in a diverse world, with friends of varying sexual preferences, gender identities, races, and religions. Nearly every one of them has been stigmatised by one or another sector of society. We’ve all thankfully come to a place in our lives where we live openly and honestly. With pride.

Personally, I’ve faced the stigma of being a gay Jewish atheist in an interracial relationship. And I am able to speak about my identity with anyone, no matter their own personal beliefs.

Well, with one exception: I suffer from depression.

Now, unlike homosexuality, most cultures and belief systems do not reject the depressed. There is no verse in Leviticus saying that I should be put to death. So why is it still so hard to be open about the fact that I suffer from mental illness?

And why am I convinced the stigma will never completely go away?

It’s part of the illness

Because I’ve been out the closet for years now, I can say with pride that I am gay. There are a few reasons. I can logically understand that being gay is perfectly normal, and that embracing that identity has made my life better. I am also constantly around others who embrace that identity.

Most importantly, the dissenting voices came from the outside. I was told being gay is bad and shameful and immoral and so on.

Depression is, unfortunately, very different.

You can live in a society that is open about mental health and you can know others who suffer from mental illness, but still feel ashamed because of it. The reason is that the stigma is not coming (only) from the outside.

Underscoring just about all mental illness is the internalised belief that “I am not good enough”, “I am weak”, “The world is better off without me”. Those types of thoughts and the feelings associated with them are symptoms of the depression. They become so ingrained in us that we don’t even think to question them.

Which is part of the reason that, to this day, I am still ashamed that I suffer from depression. At this moment, my mind is still telling me that if I wasn’t so weak, I would never have reached the really low points punctuating my life.

BUT…

…even the societal stigmatisation of depression will never completely go away. And there’s a good reason for this too.

It is an illness

The ultimate acceptance of homosexuality is to view it as normal and not give it thought. To not have to pity the person or wish, for their sake, that they get “better”.

Mental illness is, by its very definition, completely different.

If I tell you I suffer from depression and you say, “that’s a perfectly normal and healthy lifestyle”, I’m going to look at you strangely. Mental illness should elicit sympathy from others. They want you to get better and to be free of the burden.

Yet, when you tell someone with a mental illness that you feel for them and hope they get better soon, they will take it as pity for their weakness. As I said above, that’s just part of the illness.

But it goes beyond that.

We stigmatise illness for practical reasons that, unfortunately, are compelling.

For example, would you start dating someone who you knew had cancer? Someone who you know you’d have to accompany to chemotherapy. Someone whose health needs would consume your life. Someone who might die on you way too early.

Some people will answer yes, but for most, the answer is no ways. You’re not judging the person for being ill, and if they were already in your life you would stick with them without a second thought.

But to take on that burden is to be a martyr.

Dating someone who suffers from a mental illness can be similar. Their depression or mania might well set the tone for the relationship. They might be in and out of hospital. And ultimately, they could kill themselves, leaving you to feel both terrible grief and unbearable guilt for not having saved them.

I’m not saying that there should be a stigma. Rather, it makes sense that others would want to know that the person was managing their illness well before getting involved.

There’s a difference between stigma and concern

The problem is that as humans, we tend to categorise things as good or bad and making all-too-easy associations. Since mental illness seems like a bad thing, people associated with it get a label too.

And that does not have to be the case.

There are things we can do to limit the stigma, and keep the focus on the illness rather than the individual.

Separate the illness from our/their identity

This applies to those who suffer from mental illness as well as those who do not. Part of recovering from depression (or anxiety, or bipolar, etc.) is to depersonalise it. Instead of saying “I’m depressed”, we have to learn to say “I feel depressed” or “I suffer from depression”.

We have to realise that mental illness is not an identity. Only then can we start to heal from it. Because we’re not trying to fix something broken in ourselves, but rather treating a disease.

People who do not suffer from mental illness need to recognise this as well. When someone they know is suffering from bipolar, they too can say “X suffers from bipolar” instead of “X is bipolar”.

ALSO…

…never call us crazy!

Ultimately, we can hope to lessen the stigma, but not only will it take time, it will also be an essential part of the healing process.

3 thoughts on “Will The Mental Illness Stigma Ever Go Away?

  1. This is beautiful and very accurate. I don’t believe in absolutes (ex: we will never end poverty), but you’re positive outlook on lessening the stigma is an important goal to pursue! Thanks for the good read.

    Like

    • Thanks so much for the compliment! I agree – absolutes are disheartening. But, context is key, and working to lessen the stigma is, I believe, a lofty goal 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I totally agree with almost everything you wrote. I have one or two things I might disagree. with.

    Firstly that the stigma may never go away. I find this a little limiting. Perhaps rather it’s better to omit that statement and say let’s lessen the stigma. One thing you said, Leviticus has stigma about being gay, but mental illness doesn’t, and nobody in their right mind would think depression shouldn’t be cured or improved if one has it. I do think the stigma can be reduced and even eliminated. This leads me to my next point.

    When I saw this article on facebook I was eager to read it as I have my own mental illness: An atypical version of Autism. I am a little disappointed at one thing: that you spoke about depression only. The title says “mental illness”, and I was expecting it to encompass all. And even if you talk about depression only because it’s your personal experience and can use that as an example, I’d have liked to see some other reasons why mental illness has a stigma, rather than “the feelings of not being enough are inside of you”. I for example have a completely different disorder. And there are disorders where for example one has an inflated self esteem, so this reason doesn’t apply to all.

    All I can give is my perspective as I don’t know the full answers. But as an Autistic person, especially someone with a “mild” atypical form of it, the best word I can describe about it is “it’s invisible”. I APPEAR normal enough on the surface, but in my opinion, what I have is a disability – a social, and a sensory. My biggest issue in my life, is not being taken seriously. I am expected to perform in social situations like anyone else, where I am anything but.

    I think that this is a stigma that many people with mental illness share. At the least, depression and anxiety. One is told to calm down, cheer up etc. It’s not seen as an illness. And my Autism is often seen as an excuse when I try explain that I can’t give people space, or stop telling them that I love them when I have a lack of a filter on my brain.

    There is another mental illness that I am a part of, of which I feel ashamed to admit, and this is a huge issue. That disorder is Narcissism. I am not diagnosed with NPD, but I contain almost all the traits, aside from a complete lack of remorse, as I do feel remorse when I hurt others. Other than that I have a sense of grandiosity, entitlement, I do use people to an extent, and I experience immense guilt and shame on a daily basis, which is debilitating and has caused me to go into debt by spending money to try and alleviate that guilt, or attack people to try and alleviate the shame.

    Narcissism is an illness along with everything else, yet it is treated rather that you are a monster. When someone with Bipolar goes into a Manic state, and stabs somebody with a pair of scissors, they are treated as “they were in a chemical state they couldn’t control”. But Narcissists are often treated simply as assholes, and what’s worse, asshole who “don’t want to change”. The latter half of that sentence is a huge problem – can you really treat a narcissist like they’re neurotypical? You wouldn’t treat a Bipolar person like that, and say “next time, try not to do anything too hectic”, you’d put them on meds, give them therapy, and also, UNDERSTANDING, something that I know my Autism needs, but so does my narccisism.

    When I first discovered Narcissism, I was terrified. Not because I had it, but because of what I read when I googled and youtubed. 99% of everything I came across said “get out while you still can”. I searched profusely for support on Narcissism. Absolutely all I could find were articles and videos trying to support the “victims of narcissism”, their friends and families who are abused by this mental illness. And while that is very necessary as well, the narcissist is left alone, with his shame, told he is an asshole, stubborn, unwilling to change, when really the reason he is unwilling to change is because he has a mental disorder preventing him from seeing past his inflated sense of self. Is expecting him to change really any different from saying “cheer up” to a depressed person? Is it really just a choice?

    And yes, even with therapy, many narcissists never change, and it’s true that they have to realize that they want to on their own. But what we CAN change is the stigma. I am absolutely terrified to mention to the next girl I date that I have narcissistic traits. I want to be honest with her, I don’t like hiding things, I want to also explain some of my behaviours to her, and yet I can’t. Because if she goes online to search for narcissism, all she will see is “leave now while you still can, he will destroy you”.

    I as I said am not diagnosed and therefore may be a bit more open to my awareness of my narcissism. but i have met people who are diagnosed. Some are very hectic and I couldn’t speak with them for very long. But one in particular was a good friend of mine and she opened my eyes up to the stigma against narcissism. She was, surprisingly, a very caring friend, and one of my most supportive I’ve ever had. Our conversations about narcissism were even liberating and philosophical. We spoke about how most people deny their selfish needs and how we feel we are in touch with them. And how society views it as such a terrible thing to take care of yourself first. Now I know, some narcissists are so deep into it that they are incredibly destructive, to themselves and others. I’m not saying narcissism is fine. But it is not black and white, and even the people who are deepest into it, are suffering. And they are not viewed as suffering. The president of south africa spent millions on his house, while people starve and suffer. I totally understand why people are extremely angry, and they have a right to be. I wouldn’t ask them to stop feeling upset or to OK his behaviour. But is he just an asshole? Or is he mentally ill? Narcissism is a disorder, a disorder in which one doesn’t know that they are even sick. Take Kanye West for example, he thinks he is totally fine in his behaviour, even when people blatantly tell him he’s full of shit. The severity of his obliviousness, to me, screams mental illness, someone who is just “an asshole” isn’t making choices like that and filled with such a delusion of grandiosity.

    My point is, I’d like to see you explore more the correlation between all the mental illnesses and why there is a stigma as a whole. They seem to affect each mental illness differently. But in general it’s one stigma. People are just not very open to mental illness and it is often dismissed.

    So why is that? I don’t know, I’m not an expert. But my theories of some clues would be:

    – people are afraid. You tell them you’re “crazy”. I understand their reason to be, as mental illness is an unstable thing and can hurt them if they get too close. However, this leaves people with mental illness with less support, alone, and without understanding or love and care. And don’t tell me you have a therapist, because yes, my therapist is amazing and does give me support and even care and compassion. But I see her once a week, and I need more than just a therapist, I need friends, a girlfriend, family, and love and support from them.

    – people have their own fucked up minds. I had a friend recently tell me “I know you send alot of messages, but the thing with me is, I’m very impatient so after 5 lines I feel I can’t read much more, and you send 20 messages”. So I agree, that just because he doesn’t have a mental illness, doesn’t mean he doesn’t struggle with certain things himself. I at first wanted to say “wow, you’re impatient? you’re lazy, I have a MENTAL ILLNESS and I can’t summarize my words my brain can’t do that”. But then I realized that his brain might not be able to read long messages, at least comfortably.

    On this note, I’ve been told “everyone has their shit” or “I have my own problems”. And this is totally true, I agree. but it makes mental illness out to be an excuse. Yes, you do have your own problems, I am not denying that, nor comparing, I am just trying to EXPLAIN what my difficulties are.

    Because everyone deals with strange thoughts, a bit of depression, a bit of abandonment, a bit of struggle with social issues, they all feel that mental illnesses are a bit of a “snowflake syndrome”. I must admit, I used to be this way regarding depression. I do not have clinical depression. But like any “normal” person I have felt a little low sometimes, my gf broke up with me, my life isn’t working out too well, I’ve even had suicidal thoughts as a teenager, which were purely psychological, not pathological. I overcame them with a bit of correction in my thinking and taking action in my life. I used to tell people with clinical depression to do the same, not knowing just how different it really is.

    – it’s invisible. Someone in a wheelchair is obvious. It immediately elicits sympathy. You wouldn’t ask them for example, to meet you at a restaurant that is up 3 flights of stairs. You’d find a restaurant that is accomodating to them. I cannot filter out sounds. On top of my struggle to listen to other people in conversation, I also have to filter out the 30 sounds around me in a busy restaurant, which is insanely painful, so much that I can scream. I can scream from a dog barking, or my gardener snipping the hedges 10 feet away. Yet, I can suppress the scream in a social situation. So firstly, that suppression then comes across like “well you didn’t scream at the family gathering we had, so stop screaming when we are at home”. I’d love to be able to vent out my scream in a family gathering, but I can’t because of the stigma against mental illness, and I suppose I also want to respect and not disturb others. But it doesn’t mean I’m not experiencing pain. Imagine you stub your toe and try stifle a scream, I’m sure we all have done that. Well I have to do that at the restaurant, because the waitress just dropped a plate. I’d like to enjoy my meal, and my time with you. So I ask if we can meet somewhere more quiet. Many people see this as an excuse, and I’m even deemed “selfish”. I appear normal enough, you can’t see inside my brain, or my emotions, so my disability goes unnoticed, and not taken seriously.

    – “special snowflake syndrome”. In general I’m very exasperated at trying to explain that I have specific needs and struggles, and being shocked at how cold people really are. Would you tell someone in a wheelchair to suck it up? I agree that on some level the physically disabled person DOES need to (I almost said “stand on their own two feet” 😛 ) be independant, stop feeling sorry for themselves, etc. But nobody denies that their daily lives are hard. And yes, I am very grateful I’m not in a wheelchair. I’m also grateful that I don’t have AIDS or cancer. But I have glandular fever, and for 6 years I’ve been in chronic pain and fatigue. I have difficulties, and I’m tired of mentioning them and being told I should be grateful i don’t have something worse, or not being taken as seriously. It’s not a competition, and I totally agree, AIDS would be worse, schzophrenia would be worse, I’m grateful I only have autism, and a mild form rather than severe autism where I wouldn’t be able to dress myself. But I still have this, and it is still under-estimated, which makes my life immensely more hard. Then I try reach out and describe my exasperation, only to find that my passionate expression is seen as exaggerating and milking my difficulties for sympathy. I do believe I deserve sympathy, but I believe we ALL do. If a “normal” person loses their spouse, we should be kind and caring and understanding to them. So I’m very tired of the comparisons people make, the stigma that people with mental illness are milking their invisible difficulties to get attention. We are trying to reach out. Yes, we DO need attention. We seem so desperate for it because we are deprived of it. And like I said above, it’s all very well that we get professional treatment (and many people don’t still), but we need support in our daily lives too. As does EVERYONE, regardless of a disability of any kind or no.

    So those are my thoughts. Sorry for the length. (why am I apologizing for something I can’t help? And contributing to this?). Thank you for reading, that is what I should say.

    Like

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