Well, as many of you know, stigma is one of the things we all have to deal with concerning mental illness. But, why do these tragic concepts exist in our society?
My theory is that the media only uses news that is flashy and/or good for ratings. People struggling with mental illness is sometimes a very sad thing, but the media makes it sound much more so. Generally speaking, the only time you will hear about mental illness is when some big time criminal is discovered to have a mental illness. People get the association that the illness was the cause of the crime, or that the crimes would have been less severe if the person was “well.”
This is a lie. There is no such thing as a person who can’t seek medical treatment. There is also no such thing as an illness that is not treatable at all. What it takes is a little determination, a good support network, and patience while your treatment plans are accommodated to fit you. This is all on you. But don’t ever think you are the only responsible party. There are doctors, therapists, counselors, and peer networks all at hand to reach out to those in need. There are warm lines, and crisis lines, to help you when you need someone to talk to, or need someone to help with some sort of intervention.
One of the ways I disabuse people of the stigma in my immediate surroundings is to just tell them. Once people realize that people they know have mental health issues, they are more likely to re-evaluate their opinions on mental health issues, and/or to feel more comfortable sharing their own mental health struggles. It’s amazing to me how quickly I have grown a support network by simply talking about it. About half of my friends have opened up about their experiences with mental health. Either their own struggles, or the struggles of those they love. Mental illnesses don’t just affect us. They affect our friends, our parents, siblings, coworkers, and our health care professionals.
By being open about our health issues, and taking responsibility for our own treatments, we can show those we love that we are just people. We aren’t the sick. We aren’t all crazy. We are just people who have a different way of experiencing the world. Every day, I show my friends that I am just a slightly more boisterous version of them. Yes, I get excited easily, and yes, I am sometimes too crass. However, I am also extraordinarily honest, hard working, and kind. If some people knew how powerful something as simple as being kind and generous can be, then they could take the time to be so, and change the opinions of those around them.
An example. I went to a party last year, and the subject of mental health came up. I quietly brought up my mental illness, and several of the people completely stopped talking. One gentleman even crossed his fingers at me, as if to ward of evil. He said, “My ex-girlfriend was bi-polar. I don’t want any part of that mess.” I told him that if he was going to judge me, to do so based on who I am, not who his girlfriend was. He avoided contact with me for the rest of the evening. A few weeks later, a mutual friend needed help moving. I showed up, and so did that gentleman. Through the process of being cheerful, and happily working harder than anyone else there, I changed the way that man treated me. He started looking me in the eye. He started talking to me with respect… in his own way. We are not talking about your average professional person, but he is a good guy. He just needed the chance to re-evaluate me. I gave him that opportunity, and maybe the next time someone brings up mental illness, he’ll say, “I know a guy that’s bi-polar. Cool cat.”
It’s cases like this that show people who we really are. But, if we don’t tell them who we really are, how are they to know? I encourage all of you to speak out. Don’t get in fights with people who say asinine things like, “Those people should be locked up.” Simply ask them if they think you should be locked up, then, hopefully after their response to the negative, let them know that you have a mental illness, and that you do just fine. Guage your audience appropriately, however, or you will just do more damage than you have undone.
Speak up. Do it your own way, but do it. Make sure you are safe, and not going to be harassed by the people you tell, for your own sake, but still bring it up. With everyone’s involvement, we can help end a stigma that takes on its own life sometimes. We can be the catalyst that continues to change our society from one that once put mentally ill people in institutions to hide them out of shame, into one in which people accept us for who we are.
Thanks for reading today. Be safe, but be real. And as cliché as it might sound, be the change you want to see. Remember: You can’t fix everybody. You can only be yourself, and let them fix themselves when they are ready.