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.
…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”.
…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.