Stigma and Mental Illness

The more I become immersed in the study of the stigma attached to mental illness, the more it astonishes me that any such phenomenon should exist at all. I believe that serious and persistent mental illnesses, like the one I live with, are clearly and inexorably no-fault phenomena. They fully warrant being treated with the same gentleness and respect as multiple sclerosis, testicular cancer, or sickle-cell anaemia.”

          Robert Lundin in Corrigan, P. W. (2005).

      Despite the fact that 45% of Australians will suffer from some form of mental illness within their lifetime there is still a huge stigma attached to having a mental illness. Isn’t that funny? We are prejudiced against nearly one out of two people! Research has found that 75% of people who have been diagnosed with mental illness experience stigma. Even worse, 38.6% of people with mental illness report direct victimization including robbery, break ins and assault based on the fact that they are mentally unwell. So in other words, the mentally ill have a double problem: they must deal with the effects of their disorder, for example anxiety, mood swings, hallucinations and delusions, as well as stigma and discrimination. 

           

        Mental illness stigma can have some profound effects. Those who are mentally ill may be denied jobs they are qualified for and housing they can afford. While we commonly think of the miseducated general public of holding these stigmatizing beliefs, research shows the problem also lies with friends and family, government officials and even mental health professionals. Those with mental illness may take on the stigma and “self stigmatise”. From this, self esteem and self efficacy may suffer. Individuals may refuse to seek help for fear of discrimination. The following quote describes self stigma more succinctly than I ever could. 

            “I perceived myself, quite accurately, unfortunately, as having a serious mental illness and therefore as having been relegated to what I called “the social garbage heap”. I tortured myself with the persistent and repetitive thought that people I would encounter, even total strangers, did not like me and wished that mentally ill people like me did not exist. Thus I would do things such as standing away from others at bus stops and hiding and cringing in the far corners of subway cars. Thinking as myself as garbage, I would even leave the sidewalk in what I thought of as exhibiting the proper deference to those above me in social class. The latter group, of course, included all other human beings.”

          Gallo (1994)

According to stigma, people with mental illness are dangerous, strange, weak willed, attention seeking, child like or have a deficit in character. It’s no wonder that people with mental illness try to hide their disorder. I know I did. I know to some extent I still do. 

I just don’t want people to know what I go through, sometimes on a daily basis. I don’t want people to know that for the last 3 weeks I have been fighting off a hypomanic episode. I have quadrupled my anti-psychotic, and I have fought to sleep. I don’t want people to know that I physically have to fight to keep still while at uni. I want to show that I am competent, recovered and responsible. Why?

 I don’t want people to think I’m weak. 

 According to my medical team I am a ‘high functioning bipolar’. And because I am ‘high functioning’ I think a lot of people forget, including myself, that I do have a serious illness. I rarely display any outward signs of mental instability. My illness is invisible. I lie to myself and to others on how well I’m doing. Just to prove to myself that I’m not weak or crazy. I’m not a part of that group. I am doing the exact thing that stigma breeds.

 It was while I was in hospital that I decided something needed to be done about stigma. While my stigma was mainly directed at myself, the other girls described horrendous experiences with being stigmatized by the public. I listened and then told my nurse I was going to do something to fix stigma. She nodded and smiled. I was manic so I had also told her that my dreams predicted global events, so I guess I wasn’t entirely believable. 😉

But you know what? Here I am. Starting a PhD in psychology which aims to address the problem of stigma and mental illness. I love it. Truly. I come in and feel like I am doing the thing I have been meant to do for a long time. As I read more and more I feel that one of the greatest barriers to stigma is honesty. For centuries those with mental illness have been hidden in asylums, shamed, and ostracized from society. What if those with mental illness ‘came out’. What if we showed people that we are still valuable members of society? It has started in the celebrity world, Stephen Fry, Mel Gibson, Carrie Fisher and Sinead O’Conner have all disclosed that they suffer from Bipolar disorder. I think the first step is to become open and honest with the disorder, instead of hiding it away. 

 So I’ll be honest. I’m bipolar. I have mood swings. I take four types of medication a day. I have cut myself and held a knife to my throat. I have stood on top of bridges. I have believed the police were hunting me. I have believed I have magical powers and premonitions. I have been convinced my husband was involved in criminal activity (you would laugh if you have met him!). Sometimes people who can’t be seen communicate with me. Sometimes I hear things that aren’t really there. I have been an involuntary patient. I have been on 24 hour supervision. I have gone for weeks without sleeping. I have been told that I have a chemical disorder, largely genetic. I have been told it may not ever go away. BUT most of the time….I’m ok. 

I’m not dangerous, I have never attacked anyone and I have no criminal record. I don’t feel I seek attention, in fact I will often attempt to hide things and gain as little attention as possible. I’m also a good mother, a loving wife and a caring best friend. I have fun. I am able to laugh at myself, and do so often. I work hard. I like to think I am a good support to people and I care deeply for others. I think I have, and have been told I have an inner strength and resilience. I am kind to animals. I keep my house clean. I cook nutritious meals for my family. I value health. I am loyal. I am intelligent, and I value education. I am successful. I am happy. I’m not perfect but, just quietly, I am starting to be ‘ok’ with me. ‘Ok’ with what I have been through. 

From now on I aim to be more honest. To stop self stigmatising myself. To tell the truth when the people who love me ask if I am ok. To feel worthy. 

To be ‘ok’ with me, warts and all.

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