Monday, October 8, 2012

A week of awareness: I will no longer be ashamed



I have mental illnesses. I also have physical illnesses.
It’s much easier for me to tell people I have high blood pressure and asthma than it is to tell them that I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and generalized anxiety disorder.
Why is it easier for me to talk about physical illnesses? In large part it is because of the stigma about mental illness.
I’ve written about the stigma of mental illness, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, before. But I thought it worth exploring again, especially during this week of awareness.
In that previous post, I gave the definition for stigma found in The American Heritage Dictionary: “A mark or token of infamy, disgrace, or reproach.”
Stigma about mental illness gives the impression that people with mental illnesses have something to be ashamed of. And it has negative effects on those who do suffer from such illnesses.

The book From Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis, by Rosalynn Carter with Susan K. Golant and Kathryn E. Cade, states the following:

“One of the most insidious effects is that stigma gives rise to stereotypes: People experiencing mental illnesses are considered to be lacking in judgment or weak willed; they are seen as incompetent, unreliable, and unable to make decisions for themselves. It is thought that they can’t work, hold public office, or even live on their own; they are dangerous, unpredictable, and violent; they have brought these problems on themselves; and they will never get better.
The truth is very different. Most people with serious mental illnesses recover and do well in the world—go to school, flourish in their jobs, own homes—yet they are considered to be rare exceptions. The stereotypic beliefs held by the general public and by many people who experience the illnesses do not reflect what modern science and other people living with mental illnesses themselves have to tell us” (p. 22-23 in electronic edition).

  So when people find out that someone has a mental illness, they may automatically think the worst of that person. If they think that person is unreliable and lacking in judgment, someone who isn’t competent, then it’s likely they will treat him or her differently than they would someone without a mental illness.
As the authors of From Within Our Reach state, “Stigma is the most damaging factor in the life of anyone who has a mental illness. It humiliates and embarrasses; it is painful; it generates stereotypes, fear, and rejection; it leads to terrible discrimination. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that stigma keeps people from seeking help for fear of being labeled ‘mentally ill’” (p. 21 in electronic edition).
  And when people don’t get help for their mental illness, they suffer needlessly.
  So what we do to get rid of the stigma about mental illness?
Authors Carter, Golant and Cade state that people may fear someone who seems different and not have compassion for them (p. 24 in electronic edition). Therefore, interaction with people with mental illness may help: “Researchers have shown that having contact with people who have mental illnesses helps to reduce stigma because it fosters empathy” (p. 28 in electronic edition).
  The authors state that “research shows we are not making any meaningful progress in accepting those with mental illnesses. We can only hope for this to change when more and more individuals are willing to talk openly about their experiences” (p. 29 in electronic edition).

  So where does that leave those of us with mental illnesses? Does that mean that we need to go out and tell everyone we know that we have mental illnesses?
  I don’t think so. I think we can be selective in choosing the people we tell and how we tell them.
  Those of us who choose to blog about our mental illnesses are telling a potentially large audience about our disorders.
  In the offline world, we can be even more selective, telling people we think will be supportive.
  We can begin to inform more and more people about the realities of mental illnesses.
  And we can choose to tell no one. There is no shame in that.
  One thing I think all of us with mental illnesses should do is to begin to work on our own attitudes and to try to erase any shame we may feel about having mental illnesses.
  I’ve set the intention to no longer feel ashamed of having mental illnesses. I may continue to have moments of embarrassment and shame, but those will lessen over time as I work on that intention.

  Have you ever experienced or witnessed stigma about mental illness?

26 comments:

  1. There is so much I am learning about OCD recently, and generalized anxiety disorder ... well, mental illness as a whole. Coming from someone that has been diagnosed with a mental illness or two, I have always been a bit more understanding, I think.

    I find that people are afraid of mental illnesses - we're looked at as weird, incapable, and damaged - and we are so not those things. If people "on the outside" understood the courage it takes to face the world when we have a mental illness, I feel they'd think differently. I think folks often forget that one does not give themselves a mental illness - it happens to us without our permission.

    Good for you, for writing about this. I wish I could take you with me to class - to show the real person behind the illness. We are not all that different from those that don't have a mental illness.

    Have a wonderful week, Tina :0)

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    1. Thank you, Amanda! I think you make a very important point--that people are afraid of mental illnesses, so they're afraid of/leery of people with mental illnesses. I think if we can help people get rid of their fear, we could go a long way in getting rid of the stigma.

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  2. I'm glad you're writing about this.

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  3. Great post Tina!!

    I definitely have experienced stigma, and sadly when it happened I was too ashamed to speak up. I have been around people who speak badly about people with mental illnesses and about how 'crazy' they are and how they wouldn't trust them with their children, or to do 'responsible' things.

    Years later, when those same conversations happened even if I was eavesdropping, I stood up for people with mental illness; which essentially meant standing up for myself. In educating people we reduce the stigma.

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    1. Yaya, I know I have been in the same boat--heard things that were dismissive of or derogatory of people with mental illnesses, but saying nothing. Good for you for speaking up! Education is key, too.

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  4. Thanks for putting it out there that this week is for Mental Illness Week.
    I really gained a lot from your post today. and I am so appreciative for what you said, "One thing I think all of us with mental illnesses should do is to begin to work on our own attitudes and to try to erase any shame we may feel about having mental illnesses."

    Thank you Tina!!

    Blessings, Deanna

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Deanna. I really do think it's so important to not be ashamed of our mental illnesses. It does nothing good for us or others.

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  5. I want to fight stigma wherever I see it/hear it. I use every opportunity to break down taken for granted ideas of mental illness! Way to go for doing the same!

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    1. Thanks for all you do in the mental health field, Jodi, including combating stigma.

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  6. Great tips. When I used to do college admissions, I had a student apply who wrote an essay about being bipolar. He met all the qualifications to be admitted, but the director found out he was bipolar and didn't want to admit him. We really locked heads over it - I thought it was unethical to deny him when he met the standards. I refused to sign off on the file. That was kind of the beginning of the end - I started looking for another job after that.

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    1. Wow, Lisa, that is awful that the director didn't want to admit a student just because he was bipolar. Thank you for standing up for him!

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  7. There is still so much misinformation about mental illness. It's really frustrating. I think the online community, including yourself, is doing a great service to try to educate the public. Most people don't realize that I have GAD because it isn't obvious, but when I sometimes withdraw to calm myself, some people see that as arrogant or stuck-up.

    It is also my experience, having a loved one with a mental illness, that shame often keeps the sufferer from getting or sticking with much-needed help. When we can accept ourselves fully, even with our inner struggles, I think we're more likely to use our tools. For me, that includes a daily routine that combines calming techniques with exposure therapy -- if I don't challenge myself, the anxiety gets worse, so I work on it daily...like brushing my teeth!

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    1. Good for you, Nadine, for working on it every day! I like that idea of building it into a daily routine.

      I have that problem with seeming arrogant or stuck-up, too, when really I'm trying to calm myself or I'm just plain shy.

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  8. "Authors Carter, Golant and Cade state that people may fear someone who seems different and not have compassion for them (p. 24 in electronic edition)."

    To me, this is the most important point of this wonderful post. People fear others who are different. Well, guess what? Those with mental illness are not "different." They are our parents, siblings, children, friends and peers. They have some health issues like everyone has health issues. We are all in this together; I just wish everyone would realize it! Thanks, Tina, for helping to break down the stigma.

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    1. Janet, you make a great point--we're not different! No more different than anyone else.

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  9. Good point, Tina. If we who struggle with mental illness are ashamed, then that attitude carries over. If we can just admit it and stand proud in our accomplishments, maybe the rest of the world will see that we're all a lot more alike than we are different. Great post.

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    1. Thank you, Grace. You're right--We are all more alike than different.

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  10. Yes Tina you do have a voice! Thank you for sharing this important journey. Blessings.

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  11. Really awesome post, Tina. Most of the stigma I have experienced has been self-induced. I too am working hard to fight my own stigma. I refuse to feel shame for something I have no control over. Well, at least that is my goal!

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    1. Sunny, it's my goal, too, but not an easy one to accomplish completely, is it?

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  12. Tina, you are awesome. Moral courage is a character trait that I admire and respect. You step out and risk yourself to help educate us. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you, Carolyn, for your kind and encouraging words!

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