More and more often, you see blurbs and motivational pics across the internet from people talking about fighting the stigma of mental illness. People bravely proclaiming they are no longer afraid, no longer ashamed of their diagnosis, encouraging others to speak out, as well. For those who haven’t ever suffered silently through their own battles, it might seem like no big deal. A non-issue. You might think we’re attention-seekers, making mountains out of molehills. You may rationalize that the majority of people don’t fully understand many different illnesses, yet all those other people aren’t going around proclaiming they’re battling any stigmas – they’re just going on with their lives, playing the cards they were dealt. You may wonder why we cannot just quietly do the same thing.
Those suffering from mental illnesses have faced years, decades, lifetimes of persecution and discrimination. We have been painted in books, television and movies as everything from dangerous monsters to dim-witted jokes. We are looked at with fear, as if every misdeed and violent crime that occurs was due to mental illness. Instead of sympathy or compassion, we are turned into one-liners and punchlines. Though the majority of us have done nothing wrong, we find ourselves needing to reassure others that we are not a danger to ourselves or others. We often bite our lips to keep from yelling out that we are not a joke, not wanting to be accused of having no sense of humor.
People assume that we are lazy, or just being negative. They assume we’re just not trying hard enough to be happy, as if feeling this way was a choice. We’re treated as if it was all in our heads and told our lives would be better if we just tried a little harder to be positive or if we truly accepted one religion or another into our lives.
We’re painted as being flawed, looney, touched in the head. We’re told we have a screw loose, as if we’re broken. We’re told we’re mental or basket cases because we cannot rein in our minds and force them to function properly by sheer will-power alone.
We’re treated like we’re weak because we may need therapy or medication. We’re told our lives can’t be that bad or reminded that others have it worse, leaving us feeling like we either have to hold things in because others have minimized them, or forcing us to defend and justify our feelings as being worthy of acknowledgement. We’re looked upon with pity, like we’re poor damaged souls who aren’t even strong enough to deal with our own emotions. We’re told big kids don’t cry, women don’t cry, men don’t cry – only babies cry. Suck it up.
We’re surrounded every day by people talking about mental illness in a negative light. The media is quick to highlight if anyone has a history of mental illness when covering a crime, but is slow to report that, according to recent studies, we are three times as likely to be the victim of a crime than the offender. According to these studies, the overwhelming majority of violence committed by the mentally ill occur in residential mental health facilities not in the public. A large majority of the mentally ill that had reported abuse had been victimized on multiple occasions. Yet we are treated as if we are the dangerous ones that need to be avoided.
North Carolina State University. “Mentally ill more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violence, study shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 February 2014.
Popular culture has portrayed us all as blossoming psychopaths, well on our way to committing heinous crimes. People openly talk about how we should all be locked away, not only for our own safety but the safety of others, as well. People petition for us to have our basic rights stripped away, like the right to bear arms, and demand databases where we must all be registered and tracked, as if we have all guilty of some crime just in being ill. Whenever one person who happens to be mentally ill commits a crime, we all hold our breath because somehow we know we’ll all be painted with that same broad brush.
We are forever biting our tongues as our illness is being treated as a joke. Some use our diagnosis as an adjective, like it somehow defines us, sometimes interchanging it with derogatory slang like crazy. Others misuse clinical words that refer to integral parts of our illness to describe mundane things, like using the word ‘triggered’ to describe something that just randomly upset them. Whenever anyone has anything seriously wrong with them, they are labelled as mental. Since we are all painted with the same broad brush strokes, people assume we’re all equally “unbalanced”.
There is no other illness or disease that carries the stigma with it that mental illness does. It is an invisible illness. Since people cannot see it, they are quick to doubt it or to minimize its effects. Nobody would look at someone with a broken leg and suggest they should just try harder to walk. Likewise, nobody would shame a diabetic for needing to take insulin to regulate their sugar and stay healthy. It is acceptable to treat other organs and body parts that are not working properly, but for some strange reason, things are different when it comes to our brains.
There is sympathy for people suffering through cancer or Crohn’s or other illnesses and diseases where a person’s body began going haywire, fighting against itself. People reach out in droves, wanting to help, to make sure they’ll be okay and know they have support. We’re battling our own minds on a daily basis, yet instead of sympathy or support, we’re met with accusations and anger. Asked why we haven’t just gotten over this yet. We’re called drama queens and accused of being attention seekers.
We face this stigma every single day. We hear it in the hallways at school and around the water cooler at work. We hear it from family and friends. We hear it from those who mean well but are uneducated about mental illness and think it will all fade away if we just smile and pray a little more. We hear it from those who think they “know better” who tell us because they’ve gotten past their struggles, we should suck it up and get over ours, too. And we hear it from those doubting mustafas who assume it’s “all in our heads and are just plain tired of hearing us whine”. We hear it in your jokes and your angry rallying cries that because one mentally ill person committed some crime, we should all be rounded up and locked away. We face the stigma EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. from every avenue of our life.
For those who still do not get why the fight against the stigma is such a big deal, please try to imagine being surrounded by people who make you feel, by their words and their actions, that your entire existence is inherently wrong, including every single thing you are feeling inside. That you are broken and flawed, that you are both dangerous and a joke for things going on in your body that you have no control over. Then take into consideration that many recent studies have shown that one in five people will struggle with some type of mental illness over the course of their lifetime. That’s millions and millions of people: fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, children, bosses, co-workers, friends. If you have a family of five, chances are one of your family members will struggle one day. If you work in an office of twenty, the odds are high that four of your co-workers are suffering. If you cannot fathom what it is like living with mental illness yourself, count yourself blessed.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Mental Health By The Numbers” NAMI.
Most of us who are suffering from a mental illness have spent our lives afraid to speak up, afraid to speak out because of this stigma. We don’t want to be labeled as crazy, batty, looney or touched in the head. We don’t want to pitied, or treated like we’re fragile, broken or damaged. We don’t want to be doubted or forced to justify our own suffering and struggles in order to have them validated. We don’t want to all be painted with the same broad brush, treated as both a criminal and a joke because we are mentally ill.
When we speak up, speak out and declare we’ve had enough of the stigma, it isn’t making mountains out of mole hills or crying out for attention. It is an amazingly huge thing. It is one of us speaking out that we can no longer suffer in silence, struggling alone to fight our illness. It is one of us finally accepting that we are not broken, flawed, damaged or mental as society has made us feel our entire lives. It is us saying “I will no longer allow anyone else to make me feel ashamed of my illness”. It is one of us stepping up and saying “I am NOT my mental illness and I WILL NOT let it beat me!”. It is us speaking out, hoping to add our voice to the collective, hoping to be a force for change because we don’t want our children, and our children’s children to hide in the shadows, ashamed of their own diagnosis, afraid to speak out and ask for help.
I am both extremely proud and grateful to each and every person who has faced the stigma head on and found the strength to speak out about their own struggles. Please never doubt that your words have mattered or carried any weight because for each of us that speaks up, there is someone else still suffering in silence who needs that extra little bit of courage, to know they’re not alone and that others truly understand. We need to be that voice of strength and to continue that chain until our voices one day can all shout in unison “ENOUGH!” Never give up. Never stop fighting. We CAN make a difference.
Republished on The Mighty on 1/27/17.