|By Georgia O'Keefe. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blue-green.jpg|
Last week, I wrote about May being Mental Health Month and touched on the stigma that still surrounds mental health illnesses.
Readers commenting on that post also discussed the continuing stigma that can keep some people from seeking help for their illnesses.
I decided that I wanted to further explore that idea of stigma and especially how it related to obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Stigma about mental illness
What is stigma? According to The American Heritage Dictionary, stigma is “(a) mark or token of infamy, disgrace, or reproach.” So, in a way, to some people, there’s a disgrace associated with having a mental illness.
I certainly felt disgraced the first time I went to the office of my first psychiatrist. I was 26 years old and had been in therapy with a psychologist for a year or so. She wanted me to see a medical doctor for help with my depression and with the OCD that I had recently revealed to her.
I lived in a small college town then, and I remember being relieved that the psychiatrist’s office was in another town about 10 miles away. I hoped that would lessen the chance of someone I knew seeing me go into the office.
Because if others saw me go into a psychiatrist’s office, they might think I was crazy. They would certainly wonder what was wrong with me, what was it that I couldn’t handle like “normal” people could.
I remember even being embarrassed with the front counter staff in the office. They knew what their boss did. Did they think ill of me? Did they look down on me?
These were my thoughts that first time.
The Mayo Clinic has some helpful information on its website about the stigma surrounding mental health.
An article called “Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness,” by Mayo Clinic staff, states that other people’s “judgments almost always stem from a lack of understanding rather than information based on facts.”
Negative effects of stigma, according to the article, include a lack of understanding on the part of families, friends and colleagues; discrimination; a hard time finding housing; physical violence and harassment; trouble with health insurance not adequately covering care; and the belief that people with mental illnesses cannot be successful at certain things or get better.
Stigma about OCD
And then there’s the stigma of having OCD. It’s still easier for me to tell people I have depression than to tell them I have OCD. The symptoms of OCD can look strange.
It wasn’t easy for me to tell my first psychiatrist how I cleaned my bathroom compulsively, that I checked the stove for literally hours, that I couldn’t walk 10 feet without looking behind me to look for dangerous objects.
I was afraid of what she would think of me. I was afraid she would think I was a weird, crazy person who had brought all this on myself.
It’s still not easy to reveal my symptoms.
According to the International OCD Foundation’s “What You Need to Know About Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” found on its website, some people with OCD hide their symptoms because of their fears of embarrassment or stigma. That’s one reason that it takes an average of 14 to 17 years from the time of symptom-onset for sufferers of OCD to receive proper treatment.
The advice that the Mayo Clinic provides for how to combat the stigma of mental illness apply well to the stigma about OCD, too.
That advice includes getting help for your illness, learning about your illness, getting support from people you trust, joining a support group, not equating yourself with your mental illness, getting help from school for your children who have mental illnesses, and speaking out about the stigma.
Two of those caught my attention in particular. One is the notion of equating yourself with your mental illness. The article reminds us that we are not our illness and suggests taking measures such as saying, “I have clinical depression,” instead of calling yourself depressed.
Ways to speak out against the stigma of mental illness include public speaking opportunities, writing letters to the editor and writing on the Internet.
Have you ever personally encountered the stigma of mental illnesses? Did the stigma cause you to delay seeking treatment?