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.