Stigma

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From Jane’s World

Bipolar. ADHD. Depression. Addiction. Asperger's syndrome. Schizophrenia. Eating disorders. Autism spectrum. Post-traumatic stress. Personality disorder. Social anxiety. Obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Did you flinch or nod as you read those words? Perhaps you nodded in recognition. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), In any given year, one in five adults in the United States has a diagnosable mental disorder. One in twenty-four has a serious mental illness. One in twelve has a substance use disorder.

These statistics are staggering, suggesting that many of us will either have a mental health challenge or have a family member or friend who does. Yet many of us flinch at the very mention of those words.

People who struggle with mental illness often experience the additional burden of feeling judged or shunned by others. I wonder what we can do to prevent such discrimination and provide encouragement instead.

Part of the problem is that mental illness isn’t always visible. When someone is walking with a white cane we rush to offer assistance. When someone who appears “normal” is standing in line at the post office talking nonsense to themselves, we hurry to get away. We fear what we don’t understand—and we often mock what we fear.

At an early age, my friend Chuck (not his real name) was depressed and had an eating disorder. At thirteen he attempted suicide. (The APA points out: Half of all chronic mental illness begins before the age of 14.) When Chuck returned to school his classmates avoided him and wouldn’t be friends. Chuck tells me the other children were sensitive enough, but scared of him. Without any knowledge or understanding of mental health, who could blame them?

In 1996 Chuck had his first manic episode. He was 21. Four years later, after a second manic period, he was diagnosed with manic depression, now termed bipolar disorder. It took him a while to accept and finally understand his illness, and even longer to realize he needed to adhere to the schedule of medication that helped stabilize his brain chemistry.

Chuck’s delusional behavior, subsequent hospitalizations, and treatment were hard on him and his family. Physical and mental health challenges are similar in that way—but we understand better, and are more comfortable, when we can see the physical cause and effect.

If you’re throwing up, I can place my hand on your back to let you know I’m there and that I care. I can comfort you by placing a warm washcloth on your forehead. If you’re having a manic episode that may include rage or thinking you are Jesus, it gets scary. And yet, says the APA, People with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than those without a mental health disorder. In fact, those with mental illnesses are ten times more likely to be the victims of violent crime.

The stigma around mental illness has gained press lately because of celebrities who have died by suicide. Famous people who appeared happy and healthy shocked the world by ending their lives. Later we discovered they had battled depression and other mental illness all their lives. The APA informs us: Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for all ages. It is more common than homicide.

The definition of stigma is “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” We all have images and thoughts triggered by words that relate to mental illness, which can cause us to be prejudiced toward someone diagnosed with these conditions. No wonder no one knew those celebrities were sick—they were afraid to talk openly about their mental health.

So what can we do? How can we help create a more supportive environment for people struggling with mental health challenges?

We can start by educating ourselves and others about mental illness and not treat it like a dirty word. As the APA says, Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a medical problem, just like heart disease or diabetes.

We can also choose our words carefully when talking about mental health. Saying that Chuck is bipolar doesn't do justice to the many other characteristics that define him—his zany sense of humor, his love for dogs, or his compassion for others. Being bipolar is only one aspect of Chuck’s life. It is manageable with medications, regular exercise, healthy eating, volunteering, and journaling.

We can also be honest about treatments. Some people will benefit greatly from medications, others from talk and holistic therapies. Not everyone responds the same, regardless of their diagnosis.

We can speak up when we feel that the media, a school principal, or even a neighbor is stigmatizing or discriminating by their actions or words. We can advocate for equal regard and treatment for people suffering from mental or physical ailments; there shouldn’t be a difference.

We can also show compassion for people who have mental illnesses. As Chuck recently shared with me, “It's hard enough being diagnosed with a mental illness, but worse is the worry about possibly losing my dearest friends if I become manic again.”

Next time we read or hear about mental health issues, or someone we know (perhaps even ourselves) is diagnosed with mental illness, let’s refrain from flinching and nod in compassion and understanding. It would be a good start.

Originally Published February 28th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout