There is still a lot of stigma attached to mental illness and we need to do something about it. Stigma is the reason that I’m here, sharing my story. My story is an invitation. It’s an invitation to let go of some of your preconceived notions about mental illness and hear what it’s really like…at least from one person…from me. Because, my hope is, every time we hear real stories about mental illness it chips away at its stigma. It chips away at that relative you have with a mental illness being dismissively called crazy. It chips away at someone who’s experiencing mood swings being flippantly called bipolar. It chips away at the fear, the unknowing, and the lack of understanding.
We don’t like to talk about mental illness. We just don’t like to talk about it. It only comes up during gruesome contexts. When there’s a mass shooting, we tend to call the shooter mentally ill (although people with mental illness are more often the victims rather than the perpetrators of these crimes), and plead for more resources for people like that. But, what about people like me? What do we do with people like me?
We don’t like to talk about mental illness until another type of tragedy strikes and someone notable dies from suicide. Then we have all sorts of opinions about how that person should have lived their life, opinions on the nature of their death, and the “if only’s” start to make their way to light. “If only we would have known that they were going through such a hard time…” But, what about people like me? What do we do with the people who are still alive, with our hearts on our sleeves, living with mental illness each day? Or the people in hiding, too afraid to be their authentic selves because of the stigma around living with a mental illness?
I know we’re not easy to look at. I know we’re not easy to deal with. I know we make you uncomfortable. I know you wish I could fix us. But, you can’t fix us or cure us more than you could if we had cancer. And yet, we still need you to deal with us, even though it’s uncomfortable.
So, how should you deal with us? How can you help remove the stigma around mental illness? I have some ideas.
- Share your own stories. If you have a mental illness, speak up. Share your stories in a context that feels safe for you. Be brave. Be bold. Let people know you exist.
- Be an ally. You can do this by simply reaching out to the people you know with mental illness and letting them know you support them; or getting more involved and joining an organization like NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness); or participating in events like Mental Health Month in May.
- Stop talking about mental illness as if it’s something shameful. Mental illness is an illness. Going back to the cancer analogy, there should be no more shame applied to someone who is fighting a mental illness than to someone who is fighting cancer. These are both tough battles to fight, and we need supportive people in our corner who don’t treat our illnesses as if they’re simply bad moods or episodes within our control. Much like cancer, all we can do is control the treatment we receive for our illnesses and do our best to fight it. We are warriors. We are strong to fight through all of the lies our brains tell us and keep surviving each day. We need to see a shift from shame for living with our illnesses to celebrating our victories.
- Start talking about mental illness as if it’s a normal thing. One fifth of our population lives with at least one mental illness (statistic from NAMI). Mental illnesses are not a fringe diseases. One in five people means that it is very likely that you or someone you know is living with at least one mental illness right now. That means our families, our friends groups, our work places are full of people that are living with mental illnesses and yet, the way we approach the subject is to treat it as if these people are invisible. We need more visibility. We need more normalcy. We need more advocacy for people with mental illnesses if we want to see a cultural shift.
- Exercise compassion, even when understanding is difficult. As I heard it said recently, “people with mental illnesses don’t get casseroles”. We don’t get “get well” cards when we’re going through crises, or funds set up to pay our extensive psychiatric bills. And, that’s fine. I’m not asking for casseroles or money or cookies. Okay, scratch that last one. I am asking for cookies. Mostly, though, I’m asking for compassion, whatever that looks like for you, even when it’s hard to understand what I’m going through.
We need to work together, doing all of the above, to help remove the stigma around mental illness. Because removing the stigma means that people like me feel more safe to exist in the world. It means that we can be our authentic selves and not have to worry about judgement or chastising simply because of who we are.