Stigma and Chronic Mental Illness

Lets take a moment to acknowledge the wacky little elephant in the room. There’s obviously a stigma surrounding mental illness. We all know it.  Anyone that grows up with mental illness, or has a kid suffering from it, or even a friend, knows that stigma is real. Frankly, given how many people suffer from some form of mental health problem in our world, it’s surprising that we still shy away from the subject.  And yet, we sure do.

As patients with chronic illnesses, we face choices every day between what to share and what not to share. We face the knowledge that everything we admit carries a weight, a perception that we can’t control.  Everything we admit can change how people think of us. As frustrating and horrible as it can sound, just admitting you have depression can carry a bunch of different meanings for different people. Some will truly understand, but some will call you lazy or tell you you’re faking it, or any number of other things.  When you admit anxiety, they may tell you you’re overreacting, or to just calm down, or stop being so childish. When you admit Bipolar, or Schizophrenia, or one of the other “big” name mental illnesses, people tend to run.

While this can be a hot topic for some, lately it’s become personally relevant to me.  Ultimately, it’s a huge part of why I wanted to start this blog.  I don’t want my children to grow up feeling the same way I have over the years. As I’ve said before, chances are good that they’ll end up with the same or similar illnesses to mine, and if that’s the case, I need to try to build a world as stigma-free as possible. In addition, I’ll be returning to the “real world” soon, and that means I have to decide how to account for all my time away.

Let’s look at the two primary kinds of stigma we must face. The perceived at the self-induced.

Self-Induced Stigma

So, what is self-induced stigma? Let me ask you some questions to illustrate.

  • Have you ever felt guilty for calling out of work on a severe depressive day?
  • Have you been scared to ask for help or felt you were weak for doing so?
  • Have you stopped taking prescribed meds because “normal” people shouldn’t need them?

Those are examples of self-induced stigma. It is important to know that just because it is self-induced, that doesn’t mean it’s intentional.  Many of us have been taught over the years that if we have a mental health issue, we’re somehow broken or not normal.  This can lead to a lot of internalized guilt and shame.  This can lead us to make some decisions that aren’t necessarily healthy.

Plus side: you can totally do something about it, although it’s definitely a challenge because retraining your brain is a lot of work. However, there are a lot of tools out there to help with that.  I’m hoping as we go along in this blog I’ll be able to share some of them that I’ve picked up over the years.  They may not all help you, but if any of them do then it’s totally worth it. For now, remember you are doing the best you can and that’s all anyone can hope for!

Perceived Stigma

When we look at perceived stigma, we realize this is the bit that we can’t control as easily: how people perceive us.  We can share our lives and our needs and our illnesses, but there’s nothing we can do to change what others think about us.  That’s the perception part, and arguably the part that hurts the most. It’s really rough to accept that we can’t change anything about how people see us, at least not in the immediate sense.

Everyone brings their own biases to the world, and mental illness is definitely one of those arenas. We can do our best to present ourselves as capable, reliable, etc., but they will still color it through their own lenses. In those situations, the best we can do is pick our battles, and our friends, accordingly.  If you don’t feel comfortable explaining to your boss or coworkers exactly why you were in the hospital, you really don’t have to.  If you don’t want to answer why you were sick, or even how you’re feeling today, you don’t have to.

Remember, though, a little honesty to the right person can go a long way. And a little visibility can also go a long way, if you’re in a safe enough position to do it. By sharing our stories, we are able to help reduce the stigma a little bit.  We teach people about our health and needs.  We educate them on how to support us, and with each step, we get a little better at taking care of ourselves.

So, what do we do?

Well, as always, that’s up to you.  For my part, I created this blog.  Education is important to me, as is sharing our stories and building strength from each other. Who better to learn from than other people who wake and fight the same or similar battles to ours?  If you want to help in that, continue sharing and responding.  Start conversations with each other and tell us what it’s like for you.

Do you deal with self-induced stigma? How about perceived? What does it look like for you and how does it affect your life?

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